Wolf and Forgotten Message (Spice and Wolf Long-form Analysis)
Spice and Wolf is no doubt widely and thoroughly enjoyed. The show appears frequently on recommendation lists or in recommendation threads and sits comfortably with a 8.4 rating on MAL, not to mention ranking as the 68th most popular anime in that same database (at time of writing). Yet, that seems a shallow metric to judge this show by. Come to think of it, all of the praise for Spice and Wolf borders on shallow. With the exception of Mother’s Basement’s fantastic (and ultra in-depth) analysis of the show’s two openings, anything resembling a critical opinion on the show boils down to “moe economics” and “great romantic chemistry”. If you ask me, that’s selling it insultingly short.
Though, I’ll admit, the two immediate draws of Spice and Wolf are its ability to turn a medieval economics lecture into riveting dialogue and its ever-developing romance. I mean, the series is titled Spice and Wolf for a reason. While I’m at it, let me also admit that the show does suffer from light novel syndrome in that only a third of the source material ever saw adaptation. However, despite the number of people praising said economics and romance, I’ve never seen any kind of meaningful discussion or analysis of why those elements succeed.
Hopefully, throughout this essay, I can expand upon those praises, as well point to several less-appreciated elements of the series that are, in my opinion, equally important to the show’s success.
So, despite over half the runtime of certain episodes being spent on discussions of economics, why is Spice and Wolf still enjoyable? I’d argue it’s because of the characters, plus a splash of well-written dialogue. Lawrence is established as valuing money/profit over everything else early on in the show. He lives a lonely nomadic lifestyle as a merchant, and, as early as Episode 1, we see him turn down Chloe’s business proposal (replete with emotional and sexual appeal) because of the economic risk. Later, we learn that his hunger for money is primarily the result of wanting to afford a shop so that he can settle down in one town and start a family.
This humanizes Lawrence, and allows us to sympathize with his desire for money. We would have a harder time allying ourselves with a protagonist who simply wants riches for riches sake. Furthermore, establishing both Lawrence’s goal of acquiring money and his skills at doing so makes conversations about economics extremely relevant to his ‘quest’. Money and successful business ventures are vital for Lawrence to move forward on his journey. In this way, details about business and economics in Spice and Wolf are equivalent to details about (for random example) Sauron’s army in Lord of the Rings. The exposition is tied directly to the stakes and challenges of our protagonist’s quest.
Oftentimes, Lawrence is talking to Holo about economics. Holo’s character makes these discussions dynamic and entertaining. She gives Lawrence an excuse to explain the numerous currencies and how their purity affects markets by playing the fish out of water. Yet, there is an interesting hierarchy of knowledge between her and Lawrence. Lawrence holds the upper hand in knowledge of markets, but Holo possesses much more worldly knowledge, leading to a sort of Padawan teaching the Jedi situation. In one moment, Lawrence is wracking his brain over the intricacies of devaluing currency. The next, Holo points out that Zheren could have given Lawrence made-up information and would profit if Lawrence did, but suffer no losses if Lawrence failed. Moments like these break the monotony of pure economics-driven discussion with riddling logic.
That’s Holo’s secondary purpose in these scenes. First, she acts as an ambassador for the viewer. Then, she bridges the conversation to a topic or theme beyond economics. Most often, she pushes the conversation towards teasing Lawrence or begging for food, both of which serve as some romantic development (more on that soon). Sometimes she brings their talks towards the macro-adventure of the series—for example, when Lawrence acquires massive debt in Ruvenheigen, she listens for the necessary information and then says she’ll help him resolve the debt so that they don’t hit a roadblock on their way to the north. Because they are traveling partners, Lawrence’s trials affect Holo’s quest as much as his.
Although the two couldn’t seem further apart, those business discussions play a large role in creating romantic chemistry between Lawrence and Holo. We can’t forget that Lawrence is a merchant through and through. In Episode 8, Holo flirts with Lawrence in terms of debt and interest as she asks for oil for her tail. She may be talking about money as well, but her cooing voice and the way she touches Lawrence imply that he’ll be investing in her affection. I don’t mean to say that Holo’s a gold digger—we’ll see that she certainly isn’t—but the mercantile business is often used as a frame for romantic tension. This is a brilliant way to interweave the themes of business-adventure and romance that keeps us invested in any conversation between Lawrence and Holo. We’re always on the lookout for both romantic and plot development.
By hiding some of the flirtation in this way, there’s a natural give-and-take like you would expect when haggling a deal at a shop. That same give-and-take bleeds through to the duo’s less-veiled flirtation. Holo will allow Lawrence to pat her head and enjoy her more submissive attitude, only to take the lead and run off a second later. But this is not to be confused with the archetypal tsundere. This is a realistic relationship, where the partners have moments of insecurity, where they need to lean on each other sometimes, and where they know what pleases their partner’s emotions. Again, Lawrence (the merchant) and Holo (the Wise Wolf) are two characters perfectly suited to this kind of interaction that relies on an understanding of human desire and motivation.
Those interactions are great fun to watch, but the romance goes deeper than simple flirtation. Lawrence and Holo are set up to be a match—in terms of desires, backstory, and faults. Lawrence wants to find a home; Holo wants to return to hers. Lawrence is a traveler, shown in the first ten minutes of the anime wishing he wasn’t sitting alone on his wagon; Holo also traveled far from home, and is revealed in the first two episodes to be abandoned by the town that once worshipped her. Lawrence is a human fearful of wolves; Holo is herself a wolf. Lawrence’s focus on success leads him to callously slap away Holo’s hand when he’s buried in debt; Holo’s pride as the Wise Wolf leads her to not consider Lawrence’s feelings when bragging about wolves attacking humans.
These connections—this matching—allow Lawrence and Holo to challenge each other. Since their wits are a decent match for each other, too, they tend to push each other forward after a bit of struggle. Thus, we see developments like when Holo sets aside her pride to save Nora the shepherdess. Holo trusts in Lawrence’s judgment of Nora and acts because of her connection with him. She can’t ignore the moral reasoning of the one she loves. Likewise, Lawrence places trust in Holo to protect Nora and not kill needlessly. Knowing that she kneeled before the forest’s wolf spirit, he has faith in her own morals and won’t ask her to sacrifice any more of her pride.
A particularly interesting example starts in Episode 2, and also serves as individual character development for both Lawrence and Holo. As mentioned before, Holo makes up a story about wolves eating the brains of humans, which causes Lawrence to remember times he was attacked by wolves. He becomes angry and Holo, realizing she’s distanced herself from her only friend, reveals a bit of vulnerability. Wolves attack humans because they’ve never been able to live in unison with—or under the care of—humans. This draws a melancholic parallel to Holo’s own loneliness and rejection.
Later on, as the duo sneak through the sewers of Pazzio, Holo is forced to assume her wolf form. She asks Lawrence not to look at her any longer—her fangs bloody and sharp, but her eyes wet and pained. Lawrence does look, and winds up cowering in fear of Holo’s true form. In this moment, Holo is vulnerable because of her fear of rejection, while Lawrence is vulnerable because of his fear of wolves. The pair almost split apart, but Lawrence calls out to Holo that he’ll follow her. In that, Lawrence faces his fear and believes that the Holo he knows won’t harm him. Likewise, when Holo returns the next day, she is taking a step by believing that the Lawrence she knows won’t reject her.
Well, that may just be a more in-depth look at the popular praises of Spice and Wolf. I did say I would explore beyond that, didn’t I?
Next to their romantic chemistry, Lawrence and Holo’s shared cunning is perhaps the main selling point of the medieval Wall Street that is Spice and Wolf. Holo is the Wise Wolf, after all. The duo escapes financial and mortal peril time and time again. Not only that, but they tend to steal away with a bit of profit as well. We eagerly wait to see how they pull themselves out of danger or—sometimes—how a profitable situation might turn into a trap. However miraculous their reversal of fortune, we never doubt its validity. They climb out of the bottomless pit via a thread we never noticed, but that was certainly there all along.
But how does this trick work? And—answering that—what can be done with this trick? As always, let’s figure it out and see if we can’t profit in the process.
We can boil this down to a formula, and it makes sense to start with the simplest incarnation of that formula. In Episode 3 of the first season, Holo buys dozens of apples and piles them atop the marten furs in Lawrence’s cart. In fact, the cart is separated into very distinct sections, and the apples are only shown in the fur section. Later on, in a demonstration of Holo’s business talent, she has the master at Milone Trading smell the furs. Their fruity smell swindles him into paying almost double his original offer.
There’s no way we would realize the apples would smell up the fur our first time watching. As Holo says, “[the master] will probably be impressed to know such a method exists.” She also tells us we won’t “get far” if we get upset over being tricked. We should learn from this. So what happened? Or, rather, why/how were we tricked? The lie itself is not as important as the reason behind it—thanks again, Holo.
The apples are introduced casually and for a separate purpose, but they are also introduced such that we have no doubt the story planned all of this in advance. Holo simply wanted to eat apples, a desire so plainly in character that we think nothing of it. The banter surrounding the purchase of the apples is equally typical. Yet, the camera shows us an absurd quantity of apples placed specifically on the furs. More importantly, Holo states she wants apples because they “smell delicious”. Lawrence thinks more like us, musing that they “look delicious”. It’s no coincidence that Lawrence and the viewer both miss the opportunity Holo sees—we’re made to identify/focalize with Lawrence’s perspective on purpose.
When it comes to more important plot points, the same principles hold true. When Lawrence gains the upper hand against the shop owner who tilted his weighing scales unfairly, he buys armor, explaining there’s a market for it in Ruvenheigen and any other goods would be too heavily taxed to make a profit. This statement about taxation simultaneously avoids raising suspicion over the armor, and plants an out for Lawrence’s debt. The armor market is revealed to have crashed and smuggling gold is Lawrence’s only chance at paying off his debt.
Of course, this is all hinted to ahead of time. The tricky shop owner should be suffering a significant loss, yet doesn’t seem too upset to sell armor. Immediately after, Holo scolds Lawrence for his overconfidence, claiming he’ll overlook important details like he did with Chloe—a bit of a shot at us viewers. Indeed, Lawrence does overlook a risk due to his overconfidence. The smuggling scheme with Nora is also foreshadowed in Lawrence’s words that he “has faith in God” to bring him profit. In the end, it is only the Church’s control of the gold market and Nora (a shepherdess for the Church) that allows Lawrence to overcome his debt.
We do begin to heed Holo’s warnings, though. When we encounter Amarti in Season 2, we’re more than a bit suspicious. Granted, this is an easier fish to catch than the subtle clues about the armor in Season 1. Amarti is clearly attracted to Holo, and he has so much screentime in the first episode that we can’t help but assume he’ll be an important character. Put two and two together and it’s not hard to see that he’ll cause trouble. But we don’t know exactly what that trouble will be, or how Lawrence will escape. Spice and Wolf does a good job not showing its hand by adding in subplots with Diana the chronicler, and by having Holo appear to side with Amarti. The situation is different enough from previous conflicts that we’re kept on our toes.
I’ve been focusing mostly on narrative and character, but Spice and Wolf is no slouch when it comes to directing. I won’t argue it’s a tour de force or anything, and the animation can be stiff or worse in the first season, but there’s certainly more going on than ‘point the camera at the subject’. There’s some cool formal stuff happening in Spice and Wolf if you look close enough.
As I mentioned when explaining the show’s narrative trick/formula, Spice and Wolf knows how to plant clues seamlessly into the flow of every scene. This smart directing not only ties together the story, but also patches up any gaps in the viewer’s understanding. When Lawrence and Holo visit the money exchanger in Pazzio, we suddenly hear the clinking of coins much more often than before. Holo’s ears twitch as she listens to the coins, cluing us in that her superior senses allow her to notice a difference in the coins’ purities. Similarly, when the duo is ambushed that same night, Holo asks Lawrence if his eyes have adjusted to the darkness. Holo’s own eyes stick out as a bright red, letting us know that she has no trouble seeing in the dark.
These little touches save the show from explaining the extent of Holo’s powers, and keep the viewer in the loop. This is one huge advantage the anime has over the light novels, and Spice and Wolf capitalizes on it excellently. Holo’s wolf features continue to add either complexity or emphasis to her expression. She may involuntarily wag her tail while pretending to be upset, or suddenly bare her otherwise hidden fangs to show she’s exceptionally angry.
While the directing is often in service of expression or exposition, there are times it enhances a particular message. After Holo cries and explains her lonely nightmares to Lawrence, he gets up to wipe her face with the sketch of his dream shop. Lawrence even crumples the sketch up himself. Given that Lawrence settling down with a shop would end his journey with Holo, it is particularly powerful that he symbolically sacrifices his dream to stay by her side.
But what does this all amount to? Well, as the opening says: “The freezing daybreak, the parched afternoon, and the trembling dark night—let us go see what lies past them.” This is a journey through time. Days and seasons pass. Old gods are replaced with technology and new gods. But perhaps most interestingly, nature and animal instincts are replaced with structure.
Holo is nature incarnate. The show opens with narration about the villagers’ old belief that the life cycle, harvest, and even motion of wheat were all due to the actions of a wolf spirit. Maybe they didn’t originally believe a spirit was literally running through the wheat, but they spoke in those terms and assigned their understanding of the world to the spirit. Pasloe’s only way to ensure a healthy harvest was to make a promise with Holo, who would then watch over the wheat. Mankind understood the world in terms of nature, not science and especially not through any social structures.
Holo’s wisdom is not knowledge of economics or politics. In fact, we see she often struggles with the more convoluted matters of man’s social order. Though she can grasp the logic behind certain trade deals, she fails to memorize the names and values of the many different coins of the world. Currency—and the kingdoms and histories that spawn it—is such an unnatural and self-imposed idea to Holo that she can’t comprehend it even with all her years of experience. Human emotions and intentions, however, are simple to her. She claims to be able to notice every lie, and we never see her fail. It seems Holo’s wisdom pertains to timeless knowledge—instinctual, basic, natural knowledge. She struggles with structuralized info like the currency itself, but can understand why the currency minter would want to measure people’s reactions to a change in purity.
Lawrence, on the other hand, is a master navigator of man’s social labyrinth. He can fire off the names and insurers of all his coins. He knows the relationships of towns to one another, and details about their religious affiliations and trade tendencies. Holo’s wisdom would not inform her of Ruvenheigen’s tariffs on gold, and the Church’s control on the market via stamped “blessed” gold. To Holo, the gold would be the same gold regardless of whether the Church laid hands on it. Lawrence needs to understand this socioeconomic model in order to run a successful business. He’s a structuralist merchant, you could say.
For all that Lawrence has learned about markets and politics, he lacks in knowledge of nature. This is illustrated perfectly in Episode 2 during a talk with Holo. Lawrence says “time is money”, such that there are 24 hours in a day and he can equate each of those hours with what it produced for him in terms of income. He believes time is something you can “have” and spend, and that farmers live and work in accordance with the clock of hours.
Holo laughs and immediately brings her more Romantic and naturalistic viewpoint: farmers are just good at “sensing” things. “They wake up when they sense daybreak” and then they do their jobs when it feels right to do them. “They do not care about time.” Holo calls Lawrence “sharp-witted but inexperienced”, which falls in line with our theory thus far. The difference between Lawrence and Holo shows not only in what they say, but also how they say it. Lawrence speaks in more concrete terms (at the start of the series), explaining economics like a professor. Holo speaks around her words. Instead of explaining to Lawrence that he left her hand hanging twice, she tells him he “failed to grab the happiness given to [him] by God” and that it’ll run away if he ignores it again. Lawrence, of course, doesn’t understand.
Considering all of this, what does Spice and Wolf say about nature and structure? The villagers of Pasloe rejected Holo once they discovered how to insure a bountiful harvest without her and (other than our external knowledge of agricultural failures like the American Dust Bowl) the show doesn’t portray many negative consequences of that rejection. All we’re really shown is Holo’s loneliness and suffering. Assuming Holo represents nature, this may be a way of implying man’s rejection of natural law will inevitably cause nature/the environment to suffer.
A more fruitful perspective is to consider where we see mankind not rejecting nature. Though the villagers of Pasloe broke their promise to Holo, they still play at the reaping of the last wheat and still build a wooden wolf for their festival. They jest about Holo’s importance, yet still find the most pleasure in keeping up old traditions. Their loudest—perhaps truest—happiness seems to come from the festival worshipping nature rather than their full wallets.
Lawrence, too, gains happiness and grows because of Holo/nature. As discussed earlier, Lawrence is unmistakably lonely at the start of the show, to the point of trying to talk to his horse. Life as a merchant—life as someone who knows only the economic, political, and structural facets of the world—has stripped him of a bond to other people. The only people he’s close to are ones he rarely gets to see, and can you even call that a connection? By accepting Holo, he not only expands his mind to a more naturalistic way of thinking, but he also connects with life and with another ‘person’.
I don’t believe Spice and Wolf attempts to portray social structure as evil, but it does show the dangers of severing one’s connection with nature. To bravely quote Thoreau, “Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity.” Spice and Wolf tells us that there is much we can learn by looking beyond our perceptions of the world, for they have likely been tunneled by the structures around us. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the show postmodern, but it is certainly Romantic (as well as lowercase romantic). There is great love and knowledge to be found beyond and before the structured ways we choose to view the world.
Spice and Wolf urges us to embark on our own journey, viewing time not as something to schedule around, but to flow through. It asks us to value the structure our societies provide, but to never forget the natural world we impose those structures upon. Our fullest potential to love lies somewhere on that long, long road we walk down. As for me—I’m just a guy who really loves Spice and Wolf.