Lawrence Craft is a travelling merchant who has dedicated his life to turning a profit through trading goods across the country. Even so, no matter how good an entrepreneur you are, it can be a lonely life, which is why Lawrence doesn’t complain too much when gains a rather unique travelling companion in the form of “Horo the Wise”, a wolf-goddess who has dwelt for generations in the wheat of a local village. Now freed from her duty, Horo decides to travel with Lawrence until she can return to her home in the north, but what will come of this unlikely partnership?
It’s dangerous to fall in love with a series before it even airs- aside from the clear lack of anything to justify your feelings, all too often the relationship ends in disappointment. Even so, with the title and promo artwork that this series had, I just couldn’t help it, and having just finished the Okami PS2 game, I was more than ready for more wolf-goddess action. And indeed, when it started, Spice and Wolf turned out to be just what the doctor ordered, combining my love of wolf girls, period settings, intelligent dialogue and entrepreneurial trading in one convenient package. It was as if someone knew about the anime I had been waiting for and set about creating it.
Even so, much as I enjoyed the series whilst it was airing, in retrospect, there was always a bit of nagging doubt at the back of my mind, and now that the series is over, that doubt has crystallised, ready to be written about. For whilst Spice and Wolf undoubtedly had a worthy character dynamic (more on that later) and moments of greatness that drew me in and made me crave more, it still lacked a little something in the execution. A particular scene or dialogue exchange might really spark the imagination and fire up my love for the series, but all too often the story arc itself would be just a little disappointing and anticlimactic. It was almost as if the anime wanted to show that the series had potential, but for that to realise it to its fullest extent, you would have to read the original novels instead.
Unsurprisingly for a series about trading, Spice and Wolf tries to emphasise the economic aspect of its deal, which for someone who has taken a course in financial physics and even enjoys Working Lunch should really be a boon. As it turns out, either I’m not as smart as I think or certain specifics haven’t been explained very well, because whilst the overall trades are rather simple, the logic of the details isn’t always clear or easy to follow.
One area in which Spice and Wolf does well is in the character dynamic between the two leads; Lawrence is a man who lives in a wagon that is “too big for one person, too small for two”, but no matter how irksome it can be to live in close quarters with someone else for an extended period of time, he must surely prefer it to the extended loneliness of travelling alone. Horo, meanwhile, is someone who has lived so long that humans and their strategies are mere child’s play to her, but even so, she would much rather be in the thick of things than be left behind. It’s no doubt that these two characters need each other, but where Lawrence’s automatic reaction is to keep their relationship in the bounds of ‘market norms’ by calculating what Horo owes him in financial terms, Horo seems wise enough to know they will build a more enduring relationship through ‘social norms’- not least because it means she can get away without paying Lawrence back!
As far as supporting characters go, Spice and Wolf is a little thin of the ground, with most other cast members being one shot personalities who serve their purpose and then are never seen again. The only notable exceptions are the rather disappointing Chloe, an admirer and former apprentice of Lawrence who is nothing if not predictable and Nora, a shepherdess who appears late in the series but actually has a lot of potential.
Visually, Spice and Wolf may not be working on the highest of budgets, but it is still pleasing on the eye with its soft look and rich, earthy tones- perfect for a medieval setting. The music also follows the same period style, with the help of plenty of woodwinds and similar instruments- it enhances the series and stands reasonably well on its own, although some may find it repetitive after a time. The OP is a gentle and poignant theme, whilst the more upbeat ED is memorable for its amazing Engrish.
Although it was a fun ride while it lasted, ultimately Spice and Wolf was the chocolate chip bun of anime, containing shards of greatness mixed into a less impressive surround. Even so, the likable lead duo and the potential of the series ensure that I would instantly get on board for a second season, or, better still, a translation of the original novels.