Thursday, January 6, 2011

Spice and Wolf, Season One (anime TV series), via Hulu

I'm not doing so great with the whole "read more and better books" thing, am I? The year's only just started, and I already have three TV show posts and no book posts...

By the way, there is indeed a second season for this series. All or most of it is available on Hulu right now, and I considered waiting until I'd watched everything before writing this post. However, after I finished the first season, I decided to write two posts, one for each season, because the first season ends at a point that makes it easy to do this.

For once, my synopsis isn't too spoiler-filled. I can't necessarily say the same for the commentary, however. [Looking it over, now that I've written the whole thing, I'm pretty sure you could read the whole post if you were so inclined, without ruining anything for yourself.]

Synopsis:

This series takes place in a place and time very much like Europe in the Middle Ages. Lawrence is a peddler who travels from town to town, buying and selling things. One particular town he regularly visits has stories about Holo, a harvest deity who takes the form of a wolf. Belief in Holo has waned, however, and, although the town still practices pagan rituals, the times have changed. The Church is growing stronger, and commerce and new ways of doing things allow the town to prosper without relying on Holo any longer.

As he is leaving the village, Lawrence is shocked to discover a girl with wolf ears and a tail in his cart. That girl is Holo in her human form. Holo makes a deal with him. She knows the village no longer needs or wants her, so she wants to go back to her homeland in the north. By binding herself to the wheat Lawrence was transporting, Holo can leave the village she served for so long. In exchange for helping Lawrence with his business deals, Lawrence must take Holo and the wheat she is bound to back to her homeland.

Many episodes show Lawrence and Holo getting to know each other as they travel. Lawrence does business as usual, sometimes very quick and simple business, such as when he sells a bunch of furs, and sometimes more complex and twisty business, such as when he gets involved in an attempt to exchange one kind of silver coin for another one that's worth more (in this place and time period, there are many, many different kinds of currency, some with slightly greater silver content than others). All throughout, Holo helps Lawrence, teaching him and other merchants a thing or two about being crafty.

In the end, though, Lawrence finds himself in a situation that not even his and Holo's smarts combined may be able to get him out of. Deeply in debt after a deal gone bad, can a risky plan save him? Will he and Holo continue to be able to travel together as they have been?
Commentary:

Like so many shows I've watched recently, this one took a bit to really grow on me, but it was in no way a hardship to let it do so. The show's artwork and animation is a joy to watch, and the character designs were lovely. Since the premise, a wolf goddess traveling with a peddler in order to go back to her homeland, sounded interesting enough, and since Holo and Lawrence were an engaging couple to watch right from the start, I was willing to wait and see where things went.

I'm not good with economics, business, or, really, anything to do with finances. It's not that these topics necessarily bore me, it's that some part of my brain seems to shut itself off when they come up. So, when Holo and Lawrence talked about silver coins and exchange rates, I was drawn in by the way they interacted with each other, but my brain just couldn't wrap itself around the specifics of what they were doing. When things went badly for Lawrence near the end, I was sort of able to understand what was going on, but the finer points escaped me, and I can feel even the more general aspects that I was able to grasp slipping from my mind as I type. I have a feeling that it will take at least one or two more viewings of this season to really get what happened. It's a good thing this show has made it onto my "To Buy" list.

Why would I want to buy a show that often left me somewhat confused? It's kind of like when I watch sports anime. I don't know much about sports, period, but I can still enjoy sports anime because a good sports anime is about more than just the sport it focuses on. A good sports anime has an engaging human element. Spice and Wolf is like that for me, too. The characters spend a lot of time talking business, and if that's all there were to the show, I wouldn't have been able to make it through the season, much less enjoy it enough to want to buy it.

No, Spice and Wolf has more. As I mentioned in the beginning, Holo and Lawrence are a great couple. There are episodes that should have been boring - all that happened during them was that Holo and Lawrence talked while traveling with one another. Some episodes were so filled with business matters that I could barely keep up. What kept me watching was Holo and Lawrence. These two have made it onto my list of favorite anime couples.

Like many anime couples, they bicker. Holo, in particular, likes to poke at and tease Lawrence, and Lawrence gets annoyed at some of Holo's childish behavior, like her obsession with buying and eating as much good food as she can (and buying and drinking as much booze as she can). However, even though they never quite say it flat out, they really like each other, and it shows. Oh, it shows. There are moments between them that are so cute it set my fangirl heart to fluttering.

The really awesome thing about these two is that they are basically equals. Actually, that may not be the right word - the two each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and they help each other out. Holo, with her ears and tail, cannot travel freely among humans, and she doesn't always understand human society and behavior. Lawrence is a skilled peddler, but he doesn't have nearly as much experience as Holo, who has lived for several human lifetimes, does. Also, for once, Holo, the girl, is more of a fighter than Lawrence, the guy. When it comes down to physical protection, Holo is the one best equipped to handle things - and, other than some embarrassed blushing when Holo acts miffed that Lawrence doesn't come to save her himself in one episode, Lawrence doesn't seem to mind this situation at all. It'd be kind of silly if that weren't the case, what with Holo in her wolf form being the size of a tank.

Happily, Holo isn't like some of the heroines you'll find in romance novels (the comparison is appropriate, since this series is based on a series of light novels), the ones who act like they can take care of themselves and then turn out to be constant damsels in distress, running again and again into danger because they insist they can handle it. Holo is no delicate flower, and she's smart. Still, she's got a fragile side. She's been away from her homeland for a long time, and she's lonely. Also, as she and Lawrence start to develop romantic feelings for each other, she wonders if he prefers other women he meets (although I should add that Lawrence, too, gets jealous), even as she teases him about how he behaves around her.

And, yes, you read that right, there is romance in this show. It's of the sweet variety - in this season at least, Holo and Lawrence never kiss or even say they love each other. At best, they hold hands, admit to enjoying each other's company, and talk around their feelings. It's the kind of thing that, if it were to go on for too long, could get really frustrating, but that I really enjoy in the short term. I love the anticipation of watching characters come really, really close to admitting their feelings for each other, but not quite getting there. In some ways, Holo and Lawrence are a little farther along than that - I think they both recognize what they feel for each other, it's just that they haven't said the words yet. These two are seriously cute together.

Even though they're cute together, there's always one thought that intrudes: Holo is a wolf. She may look like a human girl, for the most part, but she's very much a wolf. She's not just a wolf because she can turn into one, but also because she thinks like one. Early on in the show, she upsets Lawrence by talking to him about wolves killing humans and as much as admits she's done it herself. For the first few episodes, Lawrence is afraid of Holo in her wolf form, although he gets over this fear. I kind of wonder if there can really be anything between the two of them in the long term, but they do come to an understanding in the short term. Holo may not be able to trust all humans, and Lawrence can't trust all wolves, but they can trust each other.

That trust is important. Lawrence's world is one where, 'though it may occasionally be wrapped in a veil of religion, commerce is king. Every merchant is out to get ahead, and alliances can turn into betrayal easily enough. The specifics of what was going on may have passed me by most times, but the shifting alliances and betrayals were always interesting to me.

I originally avoided this show because I thought it would be little more than an excuse for furry fanservice. It does have a little fanservice, but it's incredibly tame. Holo is occasionally naked, but, at least on Hulu, it's Barbie doll nudity. Also, it never really felt to me like any of it was gratuitous (unlike, say the fanservice in High School of the Dead). If Holo occasionally posed naked in front of Lawrence, it fit with the flirtatious, teasing nature of her character.

I'm glad I watched this first season, and I plan to watch the second. I also plan to buy the show, although, since FUNimation is distributing it, I think I'll wait until they put out the inevitable "complete series" boxed set. I will also read at least one of the light novels that inspired this show.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Mairelon the Magician (book) by Patricia C. Wrede - Spice and Wolf made me think of this book, although it's been so long since I last read this that it's possible the connections I saw may be imagined. I'm pretty sure this book came to mind because of the pairing of characters (a man and a girl, both of whom are clever in their own right), the somewhat historical feel, and the cleverness of the characters. I wrote a post about this one a while back.
  • American Gods (book) by Neil Gaiman - Darker than Spice and Wolf (I wouldn't use the word "sweet" to describe this one), but has a similar theme of old gods who have been forgotten by humankind. The setting is contemporary, and the main character is an ex-convict whose wife has died (pretty much). He ends up on a journey that has him crossing paths with numerous characters who turn out to be gods.
  • Japan, Inc.: Introduction to Japanese Economics (manga) by Shotaro Ishinomori - If you actually enjoyed all the talk about economics in Spice and Wolf, you may want to try this. It's manga based on an economics textbook (from the early 1980s), and much more interesting than that statement makes it sound.
  • Princess Mononoke (anime movie) - If you loved watching huge wolf gods duke it out in a semi-historical setting, you may like this movie. Actually, that sentence misrepresents this movie, which has a strong environmental theme and doesn't focus on action so much as contain action. It's lovely and sometimes sad and, unlike some of Miyazaki's other films, not for small children. I loved all the various forest gods in this movie.
  • Inuyasha (manga) by Rumiko Takahashi; Inuyasha (anime TV series) - A modern day girl is transported to feudal Japan, where she must collect and purify the broken pieces of the Shikon Jewel. One of her companions is a half-dog-demon, Inuyasha. The romance and action is this series is more prominent, but it might still be good for those looking for something with fantasy elements and a fairly strong heroine.
  • Mushi-Shi (anime TV series) - This series (which I've still only seen a little of) is based on a manga series, which I haven't read, so I don't know how closely it's based on the manga. The anime is lovely, and, like Spice and Wolf, fairly slow-paced. In this case, there is only one main character, a somewhat mysterious scholar who investigates beings called Mushi, which are outside of the awareness of most humans.
  • Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (anime TV series) - This is based on a light novel series (technically, it's based on the first book of the light novel series). A spear-wielding warrior woman is forced into protecting a young prince who carries inside him a being that it is believed will cause a terrible drought. During the time the two live together, they become something like a family. As pleasant and almost ordinary as their lives become, they eventually have to deal with the problems that brought them together in the first place. Although this series has action, the real focus is on daily life and character interaction, so, like Spice and Wolf, it is fairly slow-paced. If you find it to be a little too slow at first, give it some time to grow on you - this is one of those that I didn't start to love until the 10th episode, and I didn't truly enjoy the whole thing until I watched it a second time.
  • Wolf's Rain (anime TV series) - If what you really enjoyed about Spice and Wolf was the "wolf in human form" aspect, you may want to try this. It's set in some near future (possibly even in a parallel universe?) in which wolves are believed to be extinct. However, they still exist, but, by some sort of trick, they are usually perceived as being humans. A group of wolves get together, form an uneasy kind of pack, and go on a journey with a mysterious girl whose scent is the same as the one that one of the wolves believes will lead them all to paradise. I have never finished the show, because I could't quite bring myself to view the sad ending I heard it had and could see coming from a mile away, but it's a lovely, slow-paced show with great (and sometimes tragic) character interaction. A good chunk of the cast may appear to be humans, but, like Holo, they are definitely wolves - they understand less about humans than Holo does.
  • The Story of Saiunkoku (anime TV series) - This one has a similar feel. It also has a semi-historical setting, romantic elements, a strong, intelligent heroine, and a fairly happy ending (at least, the first season ends happily - I haven't yet watched the second). The main character is a princess whose family is going through financial hardships. She is paid to become the emperor's consort and hopefully convince him to start doing his job. As the season progresses, the main character becomes the first female government official and must figure out how to do her job while dealing with opposition.

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