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Spice and Wolf Complete Series (Seasons 1-2) DVD/Blu-ray Anime Review

15 min read

A tale of love, money and the divide between man and woman (or wolf goddess in this case) and how they work to bridge it.

What They Say:
Lawrence, a traveling merchant searching for profit, finds a naked girl with the ears and tail of a wolf asleep in his cart. Her name is Holo, a harvest goddess with an untamed beast lurking inside who longs to return to her beloved northern home. Armed with his street smarts and her animal instincts, the simple peddler and forgotten deity begin a journey through the wild countryside. Along their path, the riches of happiness shall be reaped even as the bankruptcy which dwells in the human heart is exposed.

The Review:
[Please note- the technical portions of the review apply to the Blu-Ray discs]
Audio:
Present on both seasons included in this set is the original Japanese track which available in 2.0 Dolby TrueHD as well as an English version which gets a bump up as it is presented in 5.1 Dolby TrueHD. For the purpose of this review the Japanese track was selected and it is an effective, if not quite awe inspiring from a technical standpoint, one as the series is largely dialogue driven and that seemed to be the main focus of the audio track as the dialogue was clean and clear with no dropouts or distortions being noted during playback but the track lacked much in the way for subtleties or helping out the video with staging of effects. Largely all of the dialogue and accompanying effects and music are present across both series and are split fairly evenly, a situation which leads to a lack of nuance being present in scenes with the split causing everything to come across a bit strong with little variation in the (albeit rather mundane for the most part due to the world setting) effects to really carry communicate some impact. While this track isn’t horrible by any stretch it feels like a letdown when, outside of a few instruments in the opening for the second season, it seemed the audio engineers decided they could phone the production in which leaves a track that doesn’t stand as well when compared to similar tracks on other series.

Video:
Spice and Wolf is set in a medieval Europe inspired environment which gives the series cause to use a more toned down and Earth palate in its animation designs to exhibit its wares rather than a bolder (or even garish) selection of colors. To that end the colors largely come off well but very often aren’t going to cause most people to drop their jaws in awe, even on Blu-Ray and in addition while the series largely tries to establish a relatively realistic design style (or as realistic as designing a wolf-god who can’t hide her tail and ears in human form can be anyway) the characters aren’t the most detailed on the market. This choice in character designs may leave many viewers unimpressed and unhappy with the decision while some others may discover that this relative simplicity adds to the fairy tale/storybook elements present in the series.

The video encode present here is a mixed bag however which is the result of the two series origins and the time frame in which the two series were made though they both are presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The first season was created in early 2008 and was created in standard definition resulting in the presentation here being an upscale- even more annoyingly apparently the upscale was done from a 480p source rather than 720p which leaves all the flaws in the video source coming out in stunning clarity along with the strength of colors and designs. The flaws here include the presence of noise that can throw off the clean lines leading them to appear warped at times while also allowing color to creep into them, banding, minor ghosting, dot crawl, haloing, jaggies, bit of interference in some colors, occasional minor blocking, times where lines jump almost presenting like a glitch and in addition there is some background bleed through on foreground characters on occasion. All in all this wouldn’t look fabulous on a DVD and on Blu-Ray it just looks worse and it really doesn’t stand up well at all when compared to the second season.

The second season on the other hand aired almost a year after the first wrapped up as it started midway through 2009 and luckily was animated in high definition and its presence here in 1080p HD Native is just worlds better as even though the two look similar when it comes to colors and designs many of the flaws present in the first season upscale are either gone or greatly minimized. Those noticed during playback included some minor feedback in some colors, a bit of noise, banding, haloing, occasional minor jaggies, and minor aliasing being noticed and while a bit of the banding could be distracting it wasn’t terrible for the most part, particularly at a bit of a distance.

Packaging:
The release comes packaged in an oversized Blu-Ray case that comes with an O-card “topper” to fit over it which uses the same art as the sleeve for the case (though slightly enlarged) which gives the combined package a height that will allow it to be even with most DVD cases should one decide to shelf the series with that particular format rather than with other Blu-Ray discs. The front image used for the release is one of a smiling Holo as she lays back in Lawrence’s horse drawn cart with her pouch of wheat in one hand with a basket of apples being present near the top of the image while the bottom 20% of the available space or so is dedicated to a brown banner that contains the series title written in white in both English and Japanese as well as some more apples and some silver coins for some added effect. The back of the sleeve shows off an image of a standing and proud looking Holo on the right against a twilight sky as she stands on the wagon’s seat while Lawrence sits to her right (appearing closer to the viewer) as he looks to be trying to tell her something while holding the reigns for the cart while the far left side of the space contains the series write up as well as six stills from the series. The bottom banner wraps around here from the front and is filled with the technical information as the grid gives the information for both the contained DVDs as well as Blu-Rays as the copyright information is presented at the bottom of the sleeve. The reverse side of the Blu-Ray sleeve contains a listing of the episode titles on the left side while the right contains an image of a naked Holo sitting on the edge of Lawrence’s wagon at an angle with the full moon just above and to the side of her head as she looks toward the viewer with a smile on her face as her hair floats in a light breeze.

The interior of the case uses four double sided inserts that allow each of the discs to have their own hub with no overlap and also prevents them from obscuring the reverse side of the Blu-Ray sleeve. For the discs themselves the release uses a pattern that has some kernels attached to a vine at the top of the disc which stretches to just under the hub with the logo again in both languages present below that with the season with the disc number in the upper right over the pattern. In addition the different format discs are further differentiated with color as the DVDs uses a gold color while the Blu-Rays use a silver color which is a nice touch considering the presence that money plays within the series.

Menu:
The menus here are fairly simple yet effective as the menu is presented in a vertical fashion on the left side of the screen as an instrumental track from the series plays in the background with various cuts from the series being present behind the menu icon that are bordered with an ornate design that plays off the kernel look seen on the discs at the top and bottom of the screen. The menu itself is quick to respond to changes in selection with the menu display switching to accommodate the various sub menus and their differing dimensions. About the only downside is that the menu is done in a fairly earth-tone color with the options being present in brown which switch to black when highlighted but the contrast between the two isn’t fantastically disparate as great as some might be optimal for some and this difference doesn’t allow for the best instant pick up as to what is highlighted if one has glanced away from the screen.

Extras:
The extras available here are the standard clean open and close for the first series while the second series contains the clean versions for its open and close as well as adding a pair of animated extras hosted by Holo, the first where she talks about the food (bread) and liquor that are prevalent as staples in the series in the first extra while in the second she goes through a series of stretches. While cute these shorts are just that and the presence of just two feels like a bit of a loss as they seem more of a tease at what could have been than completely satisfying in their own right.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Adapted from the light novel series written by Isuna Hasekura, Spice and Wolf presents what is an unusual tale in the world of fantasy type stories as rather than focusing on characters going on epic quests to save the world while fighting some malevolent force the series focus on a much more intimate scale with problems that are much smaller in scale for the world but close to as large for its characters. To accomplishing this the story follows a pair of travelers as they look to learn more of each other while also attempting to make a profit along the way and the story uses a rather heavy focus on an economic philosophy at times though some more philosophical and moral dilemmas are also present in the background as well as it establishes their various struggles and triumphs.

The story begins by introducing the audience to its main male character Craft Lawrence, a 25 year old peddler who makes his living traveling from town to town in this romanticized medieval/pre industrial Europe styled environment trading wares at each stop carefully waging his buying and selling prices against both the promise of immediate profit as well as possible future profit as he works to earn enough money to one day hopefully open a physical store as a result of his efforts.

His life gets thrown for a bit of a twist though when he visits the town of Pasloei as they gather their wheat harvest for the year and prepare to celebrate with a festival honoring the wolf deity Holo who they have credited for the harvest for years but who few –if any- actually believe in anymore. Choosing not to stick around for the event Lawrence leaves town that night but finds an unexpected surprise in his wagon when he stops for the night as he finds a naked young woman is present among his wares, though as his eyes drift from her shapely curves to the presence of both a wolf’s tail and ears it make the impossible seem somewhat non-ignorable when she introduces herself as Holo the Wise Wolf. As difficult as it is to believe it appears that she indeed is the same being that is the source of the village belief but she states that since the village has less and less use for her these days she has decided that she has more than fulfilled a promise made centuries ago to a now long dead young man to watch over the village’s harvest and she now yearns to return to her home in the North.

After a bit of confusion on Lawrence’s part the two eventually settle into an arrangement as he agrees to take her home as he travels in that direction, a decision made easier in that Holo isn’t exaggerating her “Wise Wolf” title and proves to be valuable along the way in increasing his profits, though the net effect may be a bit of a wash as she is a bit selfish and she has quite an appetite when it comes to food and drink. Despite this as the two travel and banter Lawrence and Holo both discover that they are changed by events and become closer during their travels as they attempt to weather various storms they encounter and the promise of great profit as well as crushing bankruptcy seeming to lie behind the smile of many of the individuals along the way and as they try to navigate the treacherous waters that mark the life of a merchant, though even those encounters may turn out to be calm sailing compared to trying to figure out just where they stand with the other, as well as figure out where the other stands in their own heart.

Spice and Wolf is a title that came onto the scene and garnered a good number of fans with its older than anime standard characters (well, much in Holo’s case) who interacted with each other in a way that was less the embarrassed shyness often seen in series centered around teens (though there are still moments like that) as the characters approached things often in a more mature manner reflecting their age (or in Holo’s case, the age she appears in while in human form). This difference allows for some more naturally witty and complex discussions than are the norm in anime while still allowing for each character to exhibit some shyness and insecurity born from their new relationship as they work to feel each other out as well as their varying levels of inexperience.

In Lawrence’s case he is presented as a rather intelligent young man with a good head for business even if his inexperience with the opposite sex can cause him to be distracted or less than smooth interactions with some of its members and on occasion his risk ability to adequately judge risk is overwhelmed by his desire for a large potential reward. Holo on the other hand is a very self assured, perhaps at times bordering on cocky individual who has the weight of centuries of experience as well as very sharp instincts to guide her way and at times this can lead to her possessing a somewhat regal or haughty air. Of course there is far more to her than just this as she demonstrates that while she may be wise she also possesses a number of other attributes as well including a bit of jealousness as the journey moves on as well as a stubborn streak and a bit of a gluttonous appetite as she has a taste for finer foods and a great ability to consume them even at times to the point of overindulgence. This set up allows for some rather spectacular results as the two very different individuals are able to spar with each other verbally on some even ground and feel out the other as they learn more about them as well as about some of the parts of themselves that they may not particularly be all that proud of.

Beyond just the relationship issue though the series goes a bit farther as it explores a number of issues in the world the characters live in with the focus on economics being the most explicit example though there are also some more subtle issues that are raised in the background as the politics of the church of the day whose reach makes it almost the de facto power is touched upon, particularly when it comes to having to hide Holo’s true nature. In addition the series doesn’t exactly shy away from some issues that may be uncomfortable for many as it at times deals with humanities’ treatment of others and the world around it as well as how some members of that larger world may see man in return. It is a series that seems to have a lot to say for itself and it packs in a number of characters and events to help it tell its tale, many of which are colorful and intriguing in their own right and many of the characters bring their own perspectives to give yet another view of the world around them to the audience.

As strong as the writing is through much of the series though the story at times appears to be at odds with the material and the amount of time needed to explore all of the events that each novel may bring but which the adaptation doesn’t have the time to fully explore. This leads to situations where the dialogue may start coming fast and furious as the story plays out which can lead to some ideas feeling less than fully developed as some of the conclusions of events feel unnaturally forced and rushed with characters suddenly coming to conclusions and spitting them out that can pass for brilliance at times or more like sloppy writing at others with theories and conclusions thrown out with no time to check them or pick them apart as the pace rolls along. This lack of having time to explore all the ideas can leave the situations with a bit of a superficial feel as if the staff isn’t completely sure the audience will be sold on the conclusions as they are and since the series doesn’t have time to go in depth as the novels would they are speed through in the hope that the viewer will simply take the events as they come rather than spend a lot of time pondering just how well these revelations and explanations fit into the events as they have been presented.

One further issue that comes up but is unavoidable due to the series structure is that, other than Lawrence and Holo, the other characters introduced in the various story arcs eventually disappear as the pair move on in their journeys which leaves characters than the audience may have come to love behind and while this allows for some new characters to be introduced the parting may feel a bit bittersweet when it comes to certain members. In addition to that, while Lawrence and Holo’s banter may often show signs of their years sometimes their reactions may cling a bit closer to the kind seen from some younger characters in other shows which may cause for a feeling of disconnect at times as these often amazingly wise characters can react with some rather teenage like responses. Still despite the few negatives Spice and Wolf does an incredible job of conveying its rather unique tale of two extraordinary individuals’ relationship often with some smart writing and some sparkling wit that makes it easy to see how the series has gained the following that it has among a good segment of anime fans.

In Summary:
Spice and Wolf is an anime series that looks to break from the middle of the anime series pack as it presents its leads as both characters of some experience and learning who are also capable of being outsmarted both by others and themselves at times and who despite their fronts find that they may be falling for each other on a number of levels while also being adult enough to have that scare them as well as excite them. With its often high tempo pace and snappy writing it is easy to fall in love with the characters banter as they dance around each other and the situations they are in, often trying to simultaneously embrace each the other while also keeping them at arm’s length as they recognize what a commitment might mean and how any failed approach may jeopardize the comfortable situation they have come to find in each other’s presence. Of course the world may also throw its own issues at the pair and they have to discover just how much they can- or should- rely on the other while having to deal with the consequences that their actions bring to them. It is a fascinating series that has a wonderful depth to it as it combines relationships with a far less end-of-the-world-peril and a more intimate one than typically seen in fantasy stories which still has the power to threaten to throw either or both of the two’s worlds into chaos. With its fabulous leads and unusual premise Spice and Wolf is a series that sets itself apart from much of the standard anime fare and it is easy to see why it has garnered as much love as it has among anime fandom at large.

Features:
Japanese Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Language, English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, “Studying” with Holo, “Stretching” with Holo: Yoitz Style, Textless Opening Song, Textless Closing Song, Trailers.

Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: C+/ B+
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B-
Extras Grade: B-

Released By: FUNimation
Release Date: September 11th, 2012
MSRP: $64.98
Running Time: 650 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Samsung 50″ Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Receiver with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080.

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