Welcome, all, again. As one viewing season winds down and a new one begins, I’ve decided to review another favorite from years past, 2008’s Spice and Wolf. As I mentioned in my last post, favorites become favorites for a reason, and in this series that reason–for me, at least–is the sage and beautiful Holo! True, I remain fascinated by the Medieval European history so thinly (if opaquely) veneered in this show: the social ramifications and sheer terror of religious inquisition; the development of competing monetary economies and their displacement of barter; the introduction of a monied merchant (eventual middle) class which spread across all levels–however unequally–of an established caste system. . .I am a history buff, and could have fallen for this series for these themes alone. But wait, there’s more! So much more, in fact. We lucky viewers are introduced to the goddess Holo, a character balancing great complexity with sometimes maddening simplicity, and a reminder of the many rich traditions burned away by countless auto-da-fe. An anime legend was born!
We begin the show with traveling merchant Kraft Lawrence, insignificant as an individual but representing a force that is deciding the path of history in the Middle Ages, that of expanding commerce and trade. Isolated and insular communities are slowly being forged into larger, vaguely cohesive societies held together not just by political boundaries (tenuous things that they are!), but also by shared theological tenets and developing economic realities, specifically regional common currencies. As always, some people are more resistant to change than are others, especially when one compares urban populations with those living in more rural environs. We find Lawrence returning to a small rural village which is warming to these new ideas, but not yet ready to fully abandon old traditions. And this transitional phase is generating a sometimes palpable tenseness. Arriving in time for the celebration of a pagan harvest festival denounced by local church authorities, Lawrence decides that he and his wares (transported by horse-drawn wagon) might be safer sleeping outside of the village. As it happens, someone else has reluctantly reached a similar decision. . .
Holo, a beautiful agricultural goddess combining traits both human and wolf, is found to be sleeping in Lawrence’s wagon. Questioned by a startled Lawrence, Holo reveals that she is not native to the region, having migrated south many, many generations ago only to find herself deified by the local farmers. Her knowledge helped increase their harvests, and she consequently became integral to local culture. Whole traditions developed around her presence and help, but the growing influence of the church has gradually displaced her active worship and left her as something of an embarrassing relic. Dissatisfied with such situation and actually somewhat fearful of what might transpire should she fall into the hands of church authorities, Holo is seeking passage north in an attempt to return to the land of her origin. And at this point in history, probably the only people making such arduous treks–or traveling much at all, other than invading armies–were the emerging merchants and traders, who often united to form guilds that could then support and protect them during such travel. Knowing this, Holo offers Lawrence a deal: she will not only help him profit during the trip, but more importantly will teach him how to do so, should he help her journey north.
Now, one seldom profits without risk, and great profit might demand great risk. But when that risk is your very life, the profit potential better be huge! Lawrence isn’t entirely convinced that Holo’s proposal is one that interests him. Furthermore, he knows that the church would reward him very handsomely for delivering Holo to them. But, although Lawrence keeps his personal beliefs mainly to himself, he has seen the way in which the church cleanses areas and peoples of lingering pagan ways. He has no desire to feed Holo–or anyone, for that matter–to the Inquisition’s flames. And so the deal is struck and their journey begins.
This tale is, at heart, a quest, although the quest that develops is not exactly the same one upon which our two protagonists embark. The Spice and Wolf anime (and there were also light novels, manga, and games) had two seasons, introducing viewers to many characters, locales, and traditions. Neither Holo nor Lawrence pass through unchanged. Indeed, Spice and Wolf offers some of the most richly evocative storytelling that I have ever encountered in anime, with the first season being particularly well-constructed. The characters are engaging; the historical context is well-researched; and the story is convincing. Still not sure? Then I’ll give you this: Spice and Wolf is the only anime series which my wife–who is not an anime fan–has watched with me in its entirety. And then watched again. And that type of recommendation is rare indeed!