Dishonorable merchants beware:
The wise wolf watches.
And she bites.
Never have I wanted to attend a renaissance faire as badly as I did while watching Spice and Wolf, or Ōkami to Kōshinryō. This anime is set in an ambiguously medieval place and time and centers on the exploits of Kraft Lawrence, a merchant who travels from town to town in an attempt to make the most profitable trades so that he might one day be able to open his own shop.
During a stop in a village known for its wheat crop, he encounters what appears to be a young girl stowed away amongst the furs in the back of his wagon. However, this girl is actually a pagan wolf-deity named Holo. In her wolf form she is gigantic and powerful, and in her human form she retains her wolf tail and ears. Holo is leaving the town where she has lived and provided good wheat harvests for many years because the villagers’ faith in her has been waning. She decides to return to her home in the north, and she makes a deal with Lawrence so that he will take her. They end up traveling through various villages together, and Holo helps Lawrence become a better merchant while Lawrence introduces Holo to all sorts of new delicacies and shows her how the world has changed during her years as a harvest goddess.
Like Black Blood Brothers, there is a lot to love in this anime, and yet some to be desired. The main action in this series is unique for a fantasy: instead of daring quests involving mythical beasts or royal shenanigans at court, these stories actually center around the art of being a merchant. The conflicts arise from shady dealings with dishonest merchants as well as the ever-looming threat of the church, which would certainly burn Holo as a witch if she were discovered. While this series would be excellent homework if you were preparing to play a merchant in an MMORPG (or even if you were studying medieval history, though I can’t speak to the actual accuracy of the trades) the storyline can be rather confusing. Even though the characters explain each complicated transaction in detail, I still felt like I needed a degree in economics to understand it all properly. Spice and Wolf is also based on a light novel series, the same as Black Blood Brothers, only this one by Isuna Hasekura. Perhaps something gets lost in translation, or maybe the plots are simply too complex to fit into a short anime series. At least Spice and Wolf has a second season as well as a manga and an English translation of the light novels to answer its questions and clear up some confusion.
Now for the good, or even great, depending on your tastes. I’m a ren faire nerd, so the setting, ambiguous as it might be, is right up my alley. One of my favourite episodes involves Lawrence and Holo simply wandering through a marketplace buying clothes and food. Speaking of which, apples come into play a great deal, so just as you might want to have chocolate nearby while you watch Chocolat, I’d recommend having some nice shiny red apples on hand while you watch this anime. The music also does wonders for setting the mood: it’s lively and danceable and would not be out of place at an SCA event. The opening theme song, “Tabi no Tochū” by Natsumi Kiyoura, is lovely, and the end song, “Ringo Hiyori: The Wolf Whistling Song” by Rocky Chack, is adorable (not to mention the cute fairy tale-esque ending artwork). Lawrence can be a little dry, but his good intentions are obvious, and he grows on you throughout the series. Holo can seem cold and haughty at first, but like Lawrence she becomes warmer as the story progresses. She also loves food and drink, which I can definitely identify with. (I have an affinity for haughty characters, so I liked Holo from the start.) Holo and Lawrence’s relationship actually reminds me a bit of Ciel Phantomhive and Sebastian Michaelis of Black Butler, not least of all due to Brina Palencia and J. Michael Tatum providing vocal work for both sets of characters.
Overall, this anime is certainly worthwhile, especially if you have a love of fantasy stories, medieval life, economics, or all three. While the trading parts sometimes lost me, everything else was so appealing that I let it slide. Hopefully I would grasp more with a second viewing, just as I did with Black Blood Brothers. While this won’t be considered a favourite of mine by far, I’d certainly love to watch season two and discover more about Holo and Lawrence’s story.