Spice and Wolf Franchise Review
Now I say “franchise review” because the anime and manga adaptions of the light novels do not stray that far from the original. The only real differences in story are the order of events and some events being left out entirely. The manga has not made it that far as of yet and the anime has 2 13 episode seasons and personally that is where I first encountered this series.
Spice and Wolf (or it can also be translated as Wolf and Spice) became one of my personal favorite series due to how unique it is in the Japanese anime market. A lot of manga/anime falls into the same tired categories and will have incredibly predictable story lines and settings, like the high school romance or sci-fi giant robot, etc. On the other hand, Spice and Wolf's setting is that of Europe in the middle ages with a strange focus on religion, trading economics, and folklore.
The storyline follows a traveling merchant named Kraft Lawrence who has just reached the small village of Pasloe. After dropping off his goods and receiving some wheat in return he is leaving but finds that a girl with wolf ears and tail has stowed away in his carriage. She claims to be a Holo (or Horo), a wolf-deity, that had been blessing Pasloe with plentiful wheat harvests but she now wishes to return to her home in the north, Yoitsu. Lawrence isn't convinced but to prove who she is, Holo transforms into a giant wolf which horrifies Lawrence at first but then he agrees to take her with him in his travels.
The overall goal of the series is to reach Yoitsu but the journey to reach their destination is long and even uncertain as Holo does not remember its exact location. However, each novel has them reach a new town in their journey and this typically means a couple things, a new, usually shady, deal that can make some money for Lawrence as well as finding new clues about Yoitsu. This is where the story becomes rather unique. It goes fairly in depth into the economics of medieval Europe and the political/religious intrigue that comes with it. It covers aspects such as supply and demand, how much influence the church has over trade, and even how the lack of a war can cause a depression.
Lawrence was a fairly sharp merchant before Holo came along but her self-boasting of being the “Wise Wolf” is not just for show. Through her cunning, charm, ability to perceive the subtle changes in a person when they lie, and even pure stubbornness, she becomes essential to Lawrence in many of his business deals. However, Holo is also a great liability with her ears and tail she must always keep hidden for the church would jump at the chance to burn a pagan god. What I come to appreciate even more about the series is that having Holo transform to get out of a predicament is always the last resort. Lawrence hates to rely on the supernatural when his own wits will suffice and it makes the moments when her transformation is needed to be that just more spectacular.
Light Novel Art:
Both Lawrence and Holo are some of the most stubborn people you will ever meet. Neither will ever accept defeat and must always feel like they have the upper hand, especially when it comes to each other. Although they grow to like each other as they travel, they also both constantly argue to the point where it is not an exaggeration to say that at least a 1/3 of any given novel will be verbal battles between the two. This can get repetitive but at the same time has quite a lot of charm to it. Especially as the art of the arguments progresses. At the beginning, Holo's knowledge leads to her winning almost every argument they ever have but after a time Lawrence starts to win more and more to the point where they are fairly equal to each other in wit.
The anime adaption of the light novels is what I started with and although I ended up really liking the series based off it, there were certainly some negative aspects. What the anime does well is to truly give a great visual representation of the characters and have very fitting voice actors, to the point where when I read the novels I imagine them talking in the anime character's voices. It also captures the essence of the European country side beautifully. The setting really draws you in because it is so different compared to most other anime.
The downside to the anime is certainly the pacing. Even though I enjoyed watching both seasons of the anime I could not help but feel a lot of it felt dragged out. Some episodes are almost entirely uneventful leaving the viewer a bit dismayed to even continue on. Don't get me wrong, Spice and Wolf is not about fast paced action but when an episode consists of just walking around town, barely foreshadowing to the next major event, it gets kind of old. The anime also adds no originality to the series as it follows the novel's events for the most part. Nothing major is changed besides the chronological order of story arches. I consider this a downside because it is one of those cases where if you've seen one form of the series, there is less incentive to see it again in just a new format.
Spice and Wolf is one of those rare series where the Light Novel was actually picked up for an English translation. This normally doesn't happen with light novels for most companies do not see them as being profitable. Currently the first seven novels have been released in English and is the furthest along in the story. Personally I'd recommend the novels over the anime for I feel like you grow to understand the characters the most that way. The subtle changes of Lawrence and Holo as they travel together are much more pronounced in the novel format and I generally find myself unable to put the book down once I crack it open.
When it comes down to it, this series rekindles my childhood interests of medieval Europe and the folklore that came along with it. Although the story has supernatural elements it tends to handle situations realistically and that the world is not such a great place for everyone. Both Holo and Lawrence and incredibly memorable characters and wanting to know what happens to them next always keeps me looking out for the next novel on the horizon.