Many anime series take place in fantasy worlds that take inspiration from Europe of the Middle Ages, but they tend to go no further than copying the look of the period, and use that as a starting point for creating a magical world. Much of the isekai genre, where ordinary humans are reborn into a fantasy world, works basically in that way, adding swords and sorcery into the mix. Spice and Wolf is unusual in that it is set in a fantasy world, but the use of medieval Europe as a basis for that world is so accurate that it might as well not be a fantasy at all. The attention to detail is stunning, with a particularly impressive representation of how economics worked during the 14th and 15th Centuries. This was a time when guilds, large companies and the church wielded much of the power, and barter economies were increasingly being replaced by an ever-increasing supply of coinage, creating a disparity between the nominal and physical value of money. Basically, it was the birth of modern economics.
Travelling merchant Lawrence is therefore the ideal protagonist to explore the way this world functioned. What he owns is what he can carry in his cart, and his survival depends on continuing to make good deals on the goods he trades in. Towards the end of the first season, we get to see exactly what happens when that goes wrong, and he allows the prospect of huge gains to blind him to the risks involved. The bottom drops out of a market he invests in, using borrowed money, and he faces the prospect of imprisonment. The interesting and frightening thing is how quickly doors close in his face, doors of people who might previously have called him a friend.
Luckily, Lawrence isn’t alone. Helping him is his new companion, Holo, and she is really Spice and Wolf’s only fantasy element, which is incredibly unusual and refreshing for a series that takes inspiration from medieval Europe to create a fictional world. These kinds of anime series normally have magic spells being cast, left, right and centre. But there is no magic wand to save Lawrence from his mistakes and defeat his enemies. He has to rely on his own intelligence and the help of his friend. She’s a very useful friend to have, though, because she just so happens to be a powerful wolf deity.
Holo takes the form of a teenage girl, but retains her cute ears and bushy tail, which she has to keep hidden when travelling among humans. Her true form is that of an enormous wolf, who towers over everyone. Her origins are based in the Greek legend of Hyperborea, but her backstory reminded me a bit of Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. She is a god who is no longer revered by her people like she used to be. She promised to provide a town with good harvests, but whenever they get a year with a bad harvest they blame their god, misunderstanding the need to rest the land every so many years. Holo decides that she has had enough of being an unloved deity and sees Lawrence as a means to escape to a new life on the road. There is obviously a hint of romance here, but it’s predictably just a will-they-won’t-they thing at this stage.
If you go looking for promotional imagery for this series you may get the wrong impression that this is a series that is heavy on fanservice. Don’t let that put you off, because the occasional nudity is natural (avoiding the silliness that would be a wolf transforming into a girl fully clothed), not really gratuitous, and features only doll-like anatomy, so there shouldn’t be much here to offend anyone who is uncomfortable with anime fanservice, despite occasional fully naked shots. Holo is a great character, really funny but also with an emotional depth and wisdom that reflects on her true age rather than her apparent physical age, but that’s mixed with an occasional naivety that betrays her lack of experience of meaningful human companionship. A running joke is her love of eating apples, which she can devour in epic proportions, threatening to bankrupt Lawrence, but she’s clever enough to find ways to increase his wealth as well and more than earn her keep. The ending theme plays with the idea of a wolf inside the body of a girl who loves apples, and it’s unusual and brilliant.
Most of the other characters don’t hang around for long enough to make much of an impact, due to the nature of the series, but the third most important character is a shepherd girl called Nora. She is also very interesting, because she looks like a gentle little thing and yet she’s such a skilled shepherd that she is capable of protecting other people, along with her flock, by using intuition, intelligence, experience and an almost symbiotic relationship with the dog who takes instructions from her. She is key to the big storyline that runs through the final few episode of this season, with Lawrence finding a way to save himself from the horror of bankruptcy and prison, but only able to do that by persuading Nora to do something very dangerous indeed.
The series ends at a point where it feels almost like it’s just getting started, and is desperately in need of a continuation. This is the point at which I normally have to reluctantly say that the only way to continue the story is in print, but I’m delighted to say there is a second series of Spice and Wolf. It’s on my agenda to watch as soon as the DVD arrives, so I will share a review of that later this year. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with that quirky closing title sequence. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Spice and Wolf (Season Two Review)