Lawrence and Holo arrive at their next destination, Kumersun, just in time for the town’s annual festival. Lawrence is there to sell his cargo of nails; Holo is of course more interested in the festivities…and the food and drink. While they’re enjoying themselves, the pair meet and befriend an ambitious young merchant named Amarty. Instantly smitten with Holo and under a rather extreme misunderstanding about her ties to Lawrence, no thanks to Holo herself, he proposes a duel for her hand—merchant-style. Lawrence takes the challenge in good humor, and not without a glimmer of greed. That is, until an oversight on his part turns the stakes dead-serious. Later Holo and Lawrence make their way north to Lenos, where economic tensions are wound just tight enough for a smart merchant to make a killing. There Lawrence meets Eve, a lady merchant with a plan that could net Lawrence a fortune—and sever his ties with Holo forever.
Where its first season still had enough odd emotional distance and narrative hiccups to allow one to wave it aside, Spice and Wolf’s second season combines a honed narrative sense with a greater focus on Holo and Lawrence’s relationship to create a sophisticated cinematic confection the quality of which is quite simply beyond denial. Whatever else you may think about Spice and Wolf, it is too well put-together to be dismissed out of hand.
The blend of coolly restrained romance and intricate mercantile plotting in these two tales is smooth, confident, and accomplished. The romance provides the stakes for the plotting and the plots push the romance forward, stripping away the pair’s usual sarcastic banter to reveal the feelings that lie beneath. The first arc does the favor for Lawrence, using his and Holo’s first real fight to put the punch in his devious marketplace duel with Amarty, which in turn reveals to both us and Lawrence just how deep his feelings for Holo run. The arc builds its sense of foreboding subtly, from the moment Amarty and Holo meet, proceeds smoothly through Lawrence’s investigation of Holo’s hometown, flares up when their relationship is scorched, and then maneuvers deftly through the tricky twists and turns of Lawrence’s plan for Amarty’s ruin before drawing everything cleanly together for a denouement that manages to thrill both intellectually and emotionally. From beginning to end, it’s the performance of a series in full control of its storytelling craft.
The second arc does the favor for Holo, this time emphasizing the mystery elements that started to emerge in the previous arc while pushing the stakes as high as they’ll go. The mercantile branch of the plot isn’t as unique or involved as the previous arc’s, but it makes up for it in menacing unknowns and the lurking air of doom that hangs over the whole enterprise. As for Holo, we’ve always known that loneliness and conflict lurked beneath her knowing, flippant exterior, but they’ve never been so clearly articulated as when Lawrence’s deal with Eve forces her to make a decision about their future that neither really wants to make. What we see in those moments is sad and moving and, more than anything, revealing. Holo has always been the center of Spice and Wolf, and appropriately enough, its final arc brings us closer to her (and closer to understanding her) than ever before. And it does it without breaking stride or visibly straining, moving with imperturbable poise through mounting tensions and emotional crises to reach its half-hopeful, half-melancholy resolution without a hair out of place.
The downside of that seamless blending of the personal and mercantile is that you can’t get the full impact of the series unless you’re as smitten with the characters as they are with each other. If, for whatever reason, you haven’t been bitten by the Holo or Lawrence (or Holo + Lawrence) bug, then it doesn’t matter so much that Holo is betting her and Lawrence’s relationship on Lawrence’s duel with Amarty, or that every possible outcome of Lawrence’s deal with Eve appears to lead straight to the end of his and Holo’s journey. Their endless verbal sparring is less likely to set you afire than it is to make you wish that this particular literary adaptation wasn’t so…literary, and the advancement of their romance isn’t nearly as likely to leave you swooning.
None of this is new, of course. The pair’s chemistry has long meant the difference between loving and leaving the series. The difference here is that the evidence of the series’ quality is piled so high that the even the un-smitten can no longer refrain from enjoying it. Admittedly it’s a cooler kind of enjoyment, closer to appreciation or respect than the kind of consuming love that the series’ true fans obviously have for it. But it’s real, and in its own way quite potent. You feel it when admiring the completeness of the characters, from changeable Holo down to the lowliest pawn in the merchants’ schemes. You feel it when the gears of the plot mesh together and the hidden pieces start falling perfectly into place. You feel it in Holo’s fears—of entropy; the only thing, in retrospect, that a goddess would fear—and in the improbable way that taut adventure is coaxed from medieval economics. It’s something akin to the enjoyment you get from a Stanley Kubrick film: a powerful appreciation of raw intelligence and consummate craftsmanship, but at a slight intellectual distance.
There are two short video extras, one a discussion of medieval diet and the other a too-long stretching-with-Holo video, as well as welcome clean versions of both the achingly lonely opening and the simpler, happier closing, but the real extra in this set, if you have the tech, is the Blu-ray version itself. Okay, maybe it isn’t an extra, but its clean, clear video is definitely a bonus. Not so much for the animation, which is pretty minimal given the dialogue-heavy nature of the series, nor for the character designs, which are fairly standard, often uneven, and along with the animation provide too little support for the characters’ more difficult-to-divine feelings. Rather, it’s a bonus for the backgrounds. Spice and Wolf relies on backgrounds more than your average anime: for its lonely atmosphere, for its sense of time and place. They can be pretty variable, particularly the interiors and the less important in-town locales, but when the camera draws back for a bird’s-eye survey of a smoldering town, or frames Lawrence and Holo’s cart against the alpine verdure of a medieval forest, or loses itself in the washed-ink minimalism of a mist-faded vista, you’ll want every extra pixel that the Blu-ray has to offer.
Yuuji Yoshino’s thoroughly charming folk-music-inspired score, by the way, is a treat from beginning to end.
Much of Spice and Wolf consists of people sitting around talking to each other, so how Funimation handles the dub is immensely important. As per usual, the casting is pretty much beyond reproach, and the acting is generally fine. The lack of Ami Koshimizu’s imperious, insinuating and generally masterful performance as Holo is felt, Ryan Reynolds’ Amarty is rather weak, and the cast in general tends to float their feelings a little closer to the surface, taking some of the subtlety out of the emotional interplay, but otherwise there’s little to complain about acting-wise. The script is something of another matter. It plays down the sophistication of the original dialogue, particularly its fondness for wordplay but also its sly inference, while subtly broadening some of the humor. It isn’t necessarily that major—though more than a few lines of dialogue end up completely re-written—but its effect is noticeable.
There will always be those who don’t “get” Spice and Wolf. I never really did. I still don’t. Having said that, it may seem weird to recommend it wholeheartedly, but I do. After all, the series has no characters I identify with, no relationships I invested myself in, and nothing that I traditionally enjoy in an anime series, and yet I still relished every minute of it. That’s just how well-made it is. I can only imagine what it must be like if you actually get it.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Polished, impeccably written, and handsomely executed; much development for Holo and Lawrence; still among the more unique series out there.
− A great deal depends on how you feel about Holo and Lawrence; talky; animation and character designs aren’t terribly impressive.