Spice and Wolf is one of those animes that you watch and you say, “Okay, I know what that is.” That’s because you know what it is.
It’s a romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally set in an unnamed, medieval land.
Yep, that’s what it is and that’s all it is.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: it LOOKS great. Someone put a lot of effort into design and selecting a color palette that has just the right feel.
It SOUNDS great. The music is fabulous and also has just the right feel, relying heavily on the mandolin to give it the right texture.
It actually IS a comedy in the narrative sense: the meta-plot is Boy (Spice) meets Girl (Wolf), Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl, which is to say Comedy. It’s not very convincing, though. Wolf is a GOD, for Pete’s sake. If she wants to be with Spice, she’ll bite heads off until she gets her way!
So: what’s left? The romance part, the relationship between the merchant Kraft Lawrence and Holo the Wise Wolf.
Wolf (left) and Spice. What a cute couple.
I really like this element of the story because as a couple they are remarkable well-developed IF you’re willing to overlook one basic element. I’ll just toss it out there now so it can hang, like the sword of Damocles, over the rest of the discussion. Ready?
What the hell does a wolf goddess need with a human boyfriend?
There. I said it. The whole thing makes no sense.
But once you get past that, the relationship between them is actually quite a lot of fun to watch because it is not simple. They are an odd couple but not an Odd Couple (in the sense of being different in many ways but held together by some outside force); they are complementary in ways, with some of their strengths and weaknesses offsetting each other) but also symmetric in ways, with some of their strengths and weaknesses matching.
So, let’s break it down. Yeah, analysis. That’s what I do.
Kraft Lawrence is a merchant, a handsome chap in his twenties. He is sometimes naive but clearly not stupid; he is shrewd about business, less so about people. He is a religious man and moral, consistent with the mores of the world. He is strong-willed, and has a good sense of humor. He is a tease. He is modest.
He has some distinct weaknesses, the most obvious of which is a tendency to be too trusting of other people. At the same time, that’s not a bad weakness for him to have. If he was suspicious of others all the time, other people would find him unpleasant to deal with. Sometimes Holo’s wolf senses save him from his follies; sometimes they can’t.
Holo, of course, is a harvest god hundreds of years old. She has human and wolf forms; the wolf is forty feet long. The human form is HAWT and she doesn’t mind who knows it – the manga comes wrapped in a plastic wrapper – although she also has a tail. Holo calls herself a Wise and frequently is, even to the extent of understanding there are things she does not know. She is less wise in matters of the heart, and her affection for Kraft Lawrence makes her show jealousy when he talks to other women. She is spoiled and arrogant at times, consistent with her godhood, but, like Lawrence, teases mercilessly and has a sense of humor.
She, too, has weaknesses, starting with being a glutton. She eats apples by the basketful and drinks herself stupid at times. Sometimes Kraft can nurse her back to health; sometimes she has to just ride it out.
See what’s happened here? They defy traditional tropes like Father-Daughter or Hero-Sidekick. If we look at another couple (although not romantic), we can see that Elias and Chise from The Ancient Magus’ Bride are complementary in the formal sense, matching strengths and weaknesses along as many as six dimensions.
But Spice and Wolf aren’t that distinctly complementary: Kraft’s strengths don’t always match Holo’s weaknesses, and vice versa. Their mutual teasing is a good example of that. They are both good at it, each able to get the other’s goat without hurting their feelings, able to make each other laugh, able to surprise each other with their insights. In that they are symmetric, not complementary, and in fact the by-play between them is one of the reasons they are interesting.
Simultaneously, they can engage in role reversal easily. In her wolf form Holo is very powerful and she rescues Kraft from attackers several times. But in her human form she is small and physically, well, not weak but of human-level strength. She can be captured and held, and if she is deprived of both wheat and human blood (either will do), she cannot change form. This means there are times when Kraft must rescue her. Holo’s senses, as above, sometimes save Kraft from poor decisions, making her dominant; sometimes his good sense can bring her back to health after a night of binge drinking, making him dominant.
And there’s one more thing: They come to love each other before our eyes. They play elaborate games with hand holding, taking turns in which of them is willing to reach out to the other as they grope their way into romance. Kraft’s love for Holo leads him into deals and machinations. He is a merchant, after all. Holo’s love for Kraft leads her into insecurity – so unlike a god – and jealously. They feel for each other, they feel for each other strongly, and they do things that seem desperate to stay together.
It’s a love neither of them quite understands and it hurts, and you feel for them.
They work because their relationship has real depth, because they give to one another and take from one another, because they defy simple categorization. They are two well-designed and well-matched characters, and together they make a series with no plot work.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.