Spice and Wolf Season 1 – Rating: 10
1. Story – 9
Spice and Wolf is a different type of story than most anime. Set in a late medieval/early renaissance fantasy world, the story is not a sword & sorcery epic with battles and powerful magic, but rather a calmly paced story of a merchant named Lawrence and the economic realities he must deal with in order to make a profit in a changing world. The fantasy element is the other protagonist, Holo, a wolf spirit/harvest goddess that stows away in Lawrence’s wagon and asks him to help her return to her home in the far north. It seems that she has been tied to the land around a farming village for hundreds of years and worshiped as a god. As times have changed and people have learned to ensure a bountiful harvest using better agricultural practices, they have ceased to need Holo and she wishes to escape their annual rituals and return home.
However, the real story of Spice and Wolf is not the economic scheming, but the relationship between the two protagonists. It is one of the finest written, realistically paced, believable love stories I have ever seen in anime. The story is not a “sudden, magical girlfriend” story. When they start traveling together it is merely out of mutual self-interest and convenience. As they travel, they learn more about each other and begin to rely on one another for companionship, advice, and maybe even more. The realistic pace that their relationship develops at should be relatively familiar to fans of Ah My Goddess, but even more so that with K1 and Belldandy. Much of the story is conveyed through the witty banter between the Holo and Lawrence as they discuss the nature of trading in the various towns they visit.
The only beef I have with the story is that it does drag occasionally mid-arc. In those cases, the plot developement is slow, usually in favor of witty banter between Holo and Lawrence. Those can be fine moments, but they don’t move the story along quite as well as they could. However, the arc-setup episodes and the arc-climax episodes are excellent without exception, without sacrificing the back-and-forth between the protagonists.
The story is based on a series of Japanese light novels, with the first season consisting of the first two volumes of the series.
2. Characters – 10
The two protagonists, Lawrence and Holo, are two of the finest in anime. They are well rounded, complex, and most importantly believable, despite the fact that one of them is a wolf goddess. The supporting characters are all done well enough to serve their purposes, with some having enough meat to be especially effective (Chloe and Nora in particular.)
3. Art – 10
The art and animation of Spice and Wolf is extremely well done. The backgrounds are detailed and complex. With so many different towns and landscapes to travel between, it could have been done with some stock flat backgrounds, but the artists took their time to make it better. The character animation is first rate, with realistic body movements and an infinite number of facial expressions and body positions, especially with Holo’s tail! The use of color to set the mood of the piece is and to set our lovely wolf-girl apart from the drab, everyday life of a medieval town is extremely fine.
4. Music/sound effects – 10
The soundtrack is full of period instruments and mood enhancing tunes is very well done. The opening and closing themes are hummable to the point of distraction. The effects are superb, providing a depth to the viewing experience, from the random sounds of a market place to the rustle of fabric when Holo grabs Lawrence by his shirt, they don’t miss a beat!
5. VA/Dub – 10/10
For the Japanese VA work, it is well established that Ami Koshimizu’s performance as Holo is one of the finest seiyuu performances in recent memory. The range of emotion that is expressed in her voice, even without understanding most of the words, is truly amazing. That said, the English Dub performance of Holo by Brina Palencia is extremely good as well, in the two episodes I have seen dubbed. She doesn’t use the archaic manner of speech that Ami uses in the Japanese version, but that would not translate to English well anyway. What she does do is present a haughty, formal, and fiery rendition of the vivacious wolf-girl that sets just the right tone for the character. She also keeps up nicely with the wide range of emotions and the quick trigger passion of the wolf. The rest of the cast is well done, but I was really impressed with the English dub performance by J. Michael Tatum as Lawrence! [spoiler]I wasn’t sold when he was talking with the townspeople, though he seemed good enough, but the first scene with Holo, when he finds her in the back of his cart, convinced me. His voice really had conviction and fire in it as he told her to wake up and explain herself. I always felt the Japanese VA was a little calm at that point.[highlight to read spoiler]
6. Overall Enjoyment – 10
This is a fantastic show! If you are looking for something fast paced and action filled, look elsewhere. But if you are interested in a thoughtful, carefully crafted, expertly rendered, and elegantly executed story with enough twists and tension to keep you wanting more and enough subtle romance to make your heart twitter with happiness, this is for you! Last I checked, Spice and Wolf was available on several streaming sites, including Netflix, Hulu, and Funimation, the US licensor of the series. It is also available on BluRay or DVD from many fine video sellers.