A sensory description accompanied by fields of gold swaying as the west wind moves. A reference to a European legend so obscure most people living where the legend was current will have never heard of it, and well-used to boot. A depiction of change, of progress and of its accompanying alteration of people's perception. All in a preamble spoken in a soft voice.
How could this not turn out to be brilliant?
When discussing Spice and Wolf, the very title of the series is of interest. More particularly, the sequence of the words of that title. Whereas the Japanese original should have produced the sequence 'Wolf and Spice', the reverse is used in the English title; both sequences are used when people talk about the series. The very preference of one sequence of the title's elements over the other might very well show which such element is more important to the viewer. Equally, it will probably betray appreciation of the show as a whole, as one of the two elements is clearly inferior to the other.
-= Wolf =-
One way of looking at this series is to see it as a traveller's tale, perhaps even one of a budding romance: a story of two companions trekking from place to place to reach their goal and becoming more firm friends with each bump in the road - bumps that are present, partly as that's how roads are, but mostly as a method of giving the travellers something to struggle with and to overcome.
Such a view can easily enough be taken, since both protagonists, travelling merchant Kraft Lorenz and his companion Holo, have a penchant of running into trouble at each way stop, either of their own making or by coincidence and plot-convenience, and especially since theirs is an age-old adventure tale, a tale of crossing a continent while finding one's way home. The particular angle from which Spice and Wolf looks at this story is noteworthy, though.
Kraft Lorenz is one of the more unusual characters concepted within the entirety of anime and manga. A travelling trader owning little but his own horse and carriage and dreaming of making enough money to open a shop, he is hardly an archetypal hero. Nor is he concepted to become one. The focus of his character and his actions lie squarely on his business. A generally upright and decent, if competitive, man, his is a less than overly adventurous life of trying to strike a good deal and staving off bankruptcy, trading in commodities and making the best of opportunities encountered by favourable exchange rates or the novelty of trading on credit. At first glance it may not be the most exciting of lives to watch, but it is made up for by the detail poured in each individual transaction and the worries they bring to someone whose very survival hinges on the successful deal.
There is also the little fact that he has made a promise to a spirit of an age past, letting this spirit travel with him and helping her search for her far-off home for as long as their routes overlap. His motivation is partly one of expedience, partly one of awe, and partly one of wishing for a companion on the road.
While Lorenz is simply a character who is able to assess and laugh about himself and who never strays too far from the path of weighing all his options and usually acting from his thoughts instead of his emotions (somewhat rare in itself), only being overcome at times by the greed his profession might by necessity entail, Holo is what, to many, makes the show memorable.
First of all, there's her concept. She's a 'Roggenwolf', a wolf-spirit from folk legend who was a protector of the rye fields and the harvest; the legend depicted in the anime, including the idea that the wolf hides in the last sheaf of rye, comes directly from the actual legend (although the anime most likely speaks about barley, not rye - it's hard to tell, with 'mugi' meaning barley as well as rye and wheat). But Spice and Wolf adds to this simple notion, mentioning how she agreed to be present in the fields in days when the success of the harvest depended on the whims of nature and the supernatural, only to be forgotten when progress and developing technology made her antiquated, until she roused herself from her placidity, longing to return to her old home, a semi-mythical place where everything was bathed in a brilliant silver.
A being who is not human, Holo is shown to enjoy the marvels of the human world with all the lack of solicitude of a child. Seeing herself as better than humans, she is a trickster, toying with whatever interests her, shown to like mind-games, wittiness and swiftness in conversation, all the while seemingly thoroughly enjoying being pampered, being treated to large amounts of alcoholic beverages and socialising.
While this might make her likable, perhaps even charming, it doesn't make her stand out as a character. What does manage to do so is the fact that, every now and again, without too much attention being piled on it, she, and the audience with her, is reminded of the fact that she is, in truth and not only in word, different, a spirit. At such times realisation creeps through that she is, in fact, hundreds of years old and wise in the ways of the world - but in the ways of the world that was and now is gone. She is a stranger in a strange land, having awoken from slumber only to find that what she once knew is lost. It infuses her with a sense of loneliness that might not always be the most convincing, but at least appears to be sincere.
Viewed as a traveller's tale, their story is one of visiting new places and getting involved with the goings-on there, either by becoming embroiled in the affairs of that locale or by interacting with the local markets and traders in a professional capacity. The different tales, more or less one per locale, depicting the ideological problem of Holo being a wolf-spirit and the fiasco of investing in something the market is flooded with, among others, focusing on the interaction of the two travelling companions in their persons and professions with the wider world, generally lead to a calm pacing that give the two ample space to converse with each other and their surroundings and developing the bond between such unlikely bedfellows.
As it should be, that bond is slow to develop. Their travelling together at first being nothing but a marriage of convenience, slowly the practical agreement gains an emotional aspect as trust starts to build up. Equally slowly, their conversations change from the purely economical (in all meanings of that word) to the moral and the emotional, yet both keep their distance, befitting two persons who have only known each other for a short time: though banter is exchanged, sometimes infused with quite a bit of wit and mocking of self, once it starts getting personal both have a tendency to back off unless it is truly important for their travels together. If there is no progress in their relationship, this is because there should not be any: Lorenz and Holo are companions, perhaps friends. By knowing each other, they can work together; by caring, they can travel together. But more would be out of place: they are fundamentally different persons in outlook and goals and their focus on the practical side of things only makes them all the more realistic and mature.
-= Spice =-
Looking at Spice and Wolf as the story of its two protagonists, travelling companions and unlikely friends slowly growing into a stronger relationship is, however, missing the trees for the forest. The super-story isn't but a method to link the little tales together. What makes this series one that stands out from the crowd is the staggering amount of detail poured into the fictional world, a world brought to life in many of its facets by the highly unconventional method of making one of the protagonists a merchant.
As a trader, Lorenz is bound to explore the cities he travels through and while he does so the audience is treated to a setting that is as evocative as it is true to actual history. Though Spice and Wolf is ostensibly set in a fictional world, it becomes clear very soon that this world is the Central Europe of the late 14th, early 15th centuries in all but name. In particular, the cities appear as the market towns of the late Middle Ages, and the trading guilds mentioned are a clear reference to the rising Italian companies and the Hanseatic League.
The actual content of the show has little to do with the relationship between Holo and Lorenz, but is squarely focused on immersing the audience in the particulars of the small-scale trade of a time when pepper was worth more than gold. It is this what makes Spice and Wolf different from almost anything else out there, and the series makes the most of it, being sure to place enough emphasis on minute details to bring both the practice of the trade and its mentality to life.
Through Lorenz and his dealings, the audience is shown the workings of the guilds and bourses of that age, including the modus operandi of the early international trading companies and the limited use (and understanding) of trading on credit, as well as the developing sense of difference between nominal and real value of coinage. While watching Lorenz and Holo exchanging banter, the audience is also shown the more mundane aspects of city life, being taken to watch folk festivals, inns and hostels and a variety of stalls and shops.
The faithful rendition of historical detail of the setting - utensils, architecture, accoutrements all, and even, for once, the ships - surpasses anything I've seen to date in anime, putting your average (and better-than-average) Renaissance fair to shame. From the exact construction of buildings to the fact that trenchers were usually made of bread, it seems as if every single detail of the daily life of people has been carefully checked and incorporated. It does so well that I was honestly miffed when noticing that one letter shown was written in modern, not mediaeval, German.
Equally striking is the general optimism of the general worldview, a sense that people can understand the world and leave their footprint on it. This, too, is an important part of the portrayed setting and true to historical fact. The time was, and is explained to be in the setting, one of technological progress, one wherein more and more tools were developed to aid agriculture and industry and less and less was dependent on chance. Belief systems focus on the human and their mastery of the world, with nothing standing between man and his God but his own mind, resulting in a general outlook of opportunity, contrasting sharply to most fantasy and historical shows and befitting the more grounded story marvellously.
-= And everything nice =-
And then, there is myth. Vague, half-forgotten, impossible but in the dark places of the world. Hidden in plain view, in tales from the countryside and quaint mannerisms of people who should know better, shadows of a system of belief of a world past still remain. Only very seldom made explicit, Spice and Wolf employs one of the more subtle and low-key depictions of magic, neatly integrating it into the overall setting. Spirits being real, they only survive where the remaining tales say they ought to be. Reminding the audience every now and then that there is more to the fictional world than market towns, Holo is made less of a unique phenomenon and her desire to return to a home the continued existence of which she can't even be certain of, is thereby enhanced. The supporting cast, as well, complements the setting very well, living wholly in the world of man's endeavours or still faintly recalling what's outside the walls, considering alchemy to be a science yet still a bit fearful of getting involved in it because of its storied connection to the supernatural.
Being a series with a slow-moving plot and a lot of dialogue, it was a good choice to try and have each conversation be infused with at least an attempt at wit, and it's nice to see how the failing attempts are often recognised as such by the characters themselves. Always remaining on the safe side of the rational-emotional spectrum, the conversations have a lightness and lack of unnecessary outbursts that keeps the overall tone of the series intact.
Mention should further be made of the music. Granted, it's about as standard folk fair as it comes, but it fits the setting, accompanying especially the more festive moments perfectly and has the good graces to sometimes simply not be very good. As far as I can tell, there has been made something of an effort to only use traditional folk instruments and what's left of the musical scores of the time (little of which is certain to be actually old, by the way), and some of these instruments just aren't capable of producing the purer sounds their modern varieties can produce. The opening tune's lyrics also do a very good job of introducing and accompanying the type of story told.
-= Icing and Cake =-
Looking at Spice and Wolf as the tale of Holo and Lorenz is mistaking the icing for the cake. What comes first in this show is the spice, that is, the setting. In many ways, the travels of the protagonists are but a means to show the audience a small piece of a living and breathing world.
Original, if not unique, in focus and angle, superbly detailed in setting and at least decent in adding a glue to fit the separate stories together, Spice and Wolf was, to me, 2008's biggest surprise and an instant favourite. I'll admit that my particular interest in the era alluded to makes me biased, but even without it the originality of the concept, the integration of actual and made-up legend in a detailed world and the soothing charm of the low-key telling of the tales would have me recommend it as one of the very few shows that shirk away from the incessant need to bombard audiences with action and suspense, romance and relationship or like topics.
Charming, enjoyable by all age groups, calm and beautiful in its manifold details, Spice and Wolf is a delight to sit down by after a long day and simply enjoy.