I’m not the biggest fan of anime. There are a handful of shows and films that I’ve enjoyed, but most of the available programming tends to be irritatingly banal. Anime may span a great many genres, but all too often, I find myself describing one show in terms of another.
“Well, we haven’t used Gun X Sword X Trebuchet yet… have we?”
I was pleasantly surprised when I decided to take a chance on a series called Spice and Wolf. As an adaptation of the light novel series of the same name, the anime series covers only a handful of volumes of the books, but what I did see was enough to pique my interest in the source material.
In Spice and Wolf, Kraft Lawrence, a merchant with the silliest name in all the land, wanders a bucolic country that resembles Renaissance-era Europe. One day, due to some exposition, a human incarnation of the ancient wolf deity, Holo, winds up in his cart. Having a gift for negotiation, she decides to go into business with Lawrence. Spice and Wolf stays true to its anime roots by using goofy, made-up names all over the place, making the show’s dialogue sound a bit like a temporally regressive version of Star Trek.
“It’s quite simple, really. Pazzio’s Milon Trading branch needs
enough Trenni silver coins to bypass the quantabular metaflux
blockade, or a cascading hyperresonance will cause the
supercharged nanoparticulotrons to coalesce.”
I attempted to approach this series as cynically as possible. The idea of a goddess descending to Earth to befriend a human male is one of the most hackneyed MacGuffins in anime history, so I quickly wrote this off as “Ah! My Goddess set in the olden days.” However, Holo does not exist as Lawrence’s romantic fantasy, making this comparison null and void. The first episode establishes a female character that is clearly interested in Kraft Lawrence, but that character is scarcely heard from again in the series, neatly sidestepping the anime stereotype of having many women fight over a single vascillating man. This would not be a pastoral version of Love Hina.
I was already zero for two in my attempt to discount Spice and Wolf. Even so, I figured there would be at least one episode in thirteen that would have the show slipping up and falling back on one of anime’s many archetypes. Episode 13 came and went, and I was at a loss for words. The show had managed to avoid almost every single anime trope that I had come to detest, and, in the process, had carved out a very unique niche for itself. The show was not about an imminent threat to the universe. Nor was it about the trials and tribulations of an emotional high-schooler. The plot was all about economics and currency speculation, and it was driven by the consistently fun character dynamic between Kraft Lawrence and Holo the Wise Wolf. The program is sprinkled with bits of action and romance, but very rarely to the extent that Spice and Wolf begins to feel trite.
As a television show, Spice and Wolf is not without its faults. It is poorly paced for a thirteen-episode series, and suffers from a total lack of dénouement. The anime is better than many others in its tactful avoidance of much of the medium’s entrenched sexism, but it still manages to raise a few eyebrows over the writing of its female characters.
Even so, Spice and Wolf proved to be an unexpected gem. To me, it was anime’s punk rock cousin – counterculture in how it subverted or wrote around the clichés of its form. I can’t think of another series quite like it.
Which, when it comes to anime, is quite a high compliment to pay.