The physical setting of Spice and Wolf is romanticized medieval fantasy. While it may not be the most eccentric of preferences, I found it to be boundlessly fascinating; and Spice and Wolf proved certainly no exception, it managed to exceed my expectations quite profoundly. However, while most similar anime within the genre tend to focus on the caustic militaristic trends of the era, Spice and Wolf does anything but. Instead, its core story elements revolve around the day-to-day travels of a roaming merchant and his companion, which means most conflict comes in the form of economic disputes and not sword fights. This premise, while simple, emerged as surprisingly effective, as it allowed the series to flaunt a very strong sense of character development in lieu of an ordinarily frail story.
Fortunately, Spice and Wolf's lack of an exceedingly complex story was not a negative. At its conception, the story begins when Lawrence arrives in a rural farming village at the time of its harvest. After bartering some of his goods away, he comes into possession of a bundle of wheat which happens to be enchanted by the village's guardian spirit, a wolf goddess named Horo. With the village's increasing desire to distance itself from its old traditions regarding her, Horo decides to accompany Lawrence on his travels as she journeys to return to her home in the northern forests. From there on out, both Lawrence and Horo discover just how lonely their respective lives have been, and despite distinctly different personalities, begin to confide in one another's company.
This certainly is what makes Spice and Wolf shine as much as it does. Both Lawrence and Horo are absolutely fantastic characters, and their interactions with one another are both endearing and authentic; the series' pacing allows their story to flow very naturally, and lacks any noticeable lapses in quality. Though the romance only really starts to develop by the time the last episode rolls around, I didn't really find this an inherent flaw, as for the entire duration of the series their relationship is steadily developed. Initially Horo views Lawrence as little more than a traveling companion and a source for her personal amusement, but his kindness slowly seeps under her skin, and she begins to desire his company in a manner deeper than that of mere friendship. Ultimately, by relying on each other's respective strengths and covering for each other's weaknesses, they pull themselves through a number of dangerous circumstances, resulting in the development of a very hardened bond between them.
Thus, for those looking for an action-packed thriller, Spice and Wolf is not for you. Its very leisurely pace is slow but cumulative in nature, creating a very serene, relaxing watch that guides the viewer through the story with a graceful hand. While they are indeed a couple "action" scenes scattered throughout, they tend to lack much intensity, and are designed more as story elements than eye candy. At its heart, the story revolves around the communal bond between Lawrence and Horo and not so much the external strife that plagued the era.
The animation captures the medieval setting perfectly. From flowing fields of wheat to bustling market squares, the world comes across as surprisingly immersive, and the attention to color and lighting really enhances this. For example, particular attention is paid to clothing colors indicative of the times; most characters wear browns, grays, and whites, yet Horo is dressed in more regal purples, blues, and reds. These small, but cumulatively noticeable details, along with the music, provide for an enormously potent atmospheric feel. All in all, while not the most astounding of quality, the animation more than suits the series, and I can't think of a single instance of it appearing awkward or out of place.
Both Horo's and Lawrence's voice actors are splendid, and each captures the subtleties in his or her respective character magnificently. Given Horo's keen disposition for mixing emotional undertones in many of her more serious speeches, this further served to exemplify her character's strengths and insecurities as being hand-in-hand. Tack on a soundtrack awash with tunes composed with fiddles and other instruments of the times, and it's certainly easy to feel quite at home within Spice and Wolf's world.
If nothing else, Horo is the incarnation of every guy's dream girl: she's strong and confident, yet simultaneously both charming and feminine. This duality in her personality functions on a number of levels, and unlike most anime romances which have somewhat brazen females, Horo is much more human and believable (odd, since in actuality she is a wolf.) Despite her constant attempts to deny her affections, she finds herself continually flattered by Lawrence's chivalry-driven personality, and finds it increasingly more difficult to deny how happy she finds herself when in his presence. In fact, at many points throughout the series she becomes angry with him simply because he sacrifices so much of his own happiness for hers. Come the end, her goal of returning home seems to trail off toward the back of her mind, and her desire to continue her travels with him and further develop their relationship takes priority.
And indeed, while Horo is charming, Lawrence is no stranger to the trait himself. Though his lifestyle of solitude leaves him somewhat oblivious to the subtleties of courtship, his constant care and concern for Horo's well being make him a very respectable lead. While he finds himself relying on Horo's wolf form for physical protection, he cultivates her emotional needs, which creates a heartwarming quid pro quo between the two. With so many male leads that tend to flop when placed in such a circumstance, Lawrence's character was enormously refreshing; he maintained his dignity and logic without deteriorating into an emotionally numb idiot. From the get-go he's able to clearly recognize that he has affections for Horo and she him, ruling out any form of unnecessary drama.
For a series centered around the merchant dealings of a medieval trader, Spice and Wolf confirms that even the most ordinary and plain of story ideas can be transformed into a splendid piece of work. I must admit that when first choosing to watch this title, I wanted to prove to myself that much of the credit given Horo's character was mere admiration of the fact that she's a cute wolf girl; once more, however, I've confirmed my initial conceptions wrong. Through her coupling with Lawrence, Horo highlights Spice and Wolf as one of the more exemplary titles of the winter season; I easily recommend this to anyone looking for a series that wistfully and brilliantly explores the complexities of the romantic interaction between two individuals - this is definitely not one to be missed.