Saturday, May 6, 2017

[Anime] Spice and Wolf S1 Review

Review under construction - needs images.

Note: Unlike most of my reviews, what follows is a collection forum posts gleaned from the discussion of the series during a group viewing.  I have edited a few of them for clarity, but have left them essentially in their original state.

Spice and Wolf - 8/10

Post #1: Episodes 1-3, Holo’s Personality

S&W is one of the few series were most of the nudity doesn’t bother me. I’m normally part of the Prude Police, but S&W knows how to frame situations properly. A good demonstration of the writers’ conscious understanding of how to frame females is in the comparison between Chloe and Holo in the first episode. While Lawrence has no romantic inclinations toward Chloe, when she lies down on the hay and comments that she has grown up his eyes can’t help but notice this fact. The way they frame those shots and then cut to Lawrence’s face clearly indicate that we’re being treated to Lawrence’s point of view, not just being given shots of a pretty girl for fan service reasons.

Later on when Holo is getting out of the cart she is stark naked but the way the situation is handled manages to keep it from feeling like it’s just there for sex appeal. Her being naked is natural; she doesn’t give a second thought to it and neither should we. The only compromising shot is yet another that is clearly from Lawrence’s point of view: when she bends over to pick up the jerky and looking at her (nicely rounded) buttocks he notices that she has a tail. So the scene which could be a train wreck of bloody noses and shallow fan service manages to wordlessly demonstrate to us how Holo views her body and how we as the audience should as well.

One thing that is interesting to note is that later in the second episode when they are drying off in the inn Lawrence does become embarrassed at Holo being naked. At first I thought maybe this was inconsistent, since he didn’t display any of this in episode one, but on further reflection I think it could be argued that he is becoming familiar with her as a person now. Even if she doesn’t care, his maleness does.

Continuing on to Holo herself as a character, I’ve always had a very interesting time trying to pin her down. I know she is a fan favorite, but I don’t think most people appreciate a simple fact that is stated in the first episode: Holo is Holo. She is her own personality that is not any particular trope and doesn’t play to what people want. She is very old and experienced, despite appearances. However, she knows the effect her appearance has and smoothly abuses it to get what she wants. The only reason she isn’t a villain is because what she wants is usually fairly basic (apples!) or more or less good-willed (helping Lawrence). In short, she is highly, but benignly, manipulative.

This is the reason that again, despite her popularity, I really don’t think people appreciate how dangerous she is. Not in a “wolf eat you” way (although that is also true), but in the fact that in scene after scene she is content to play with Lawrence. To tease him, to excite his emotions, and then to stomp them. It’s her pastime. This is somebody who is very adept at wearing a mask and only rarely lets what she thinks and feels through, instead pretending to be many different things and watching other people react. So in short, even though I admire Holo as a character I have never thought that she would be an amazing person to be with in real life.

To finish up, I have a question for people: where do you imagine S&W taking place? I’ve always imagined either southern Germany or northern Italy given the names, but never could quite decide on which.

Post #2: Episodes 4-7, Lawrence

I like this first arc, but I will be honest I still don’t 100% understand how the deal worked. More specifically, they never answer the original question which is: why were Lawrence and Holo targeted by Medio Trading? They bring this up as a bizarre choice by Medio Trading since Milone Trading wouldn’t care that much. Is the implication that Chloe recognized Holo‘s name and authorized the hit out of a hunch? I just never got it.

Which brings me on to the second point, and that is Chloe’s involvement in Medio Trading. It strikes me as terribly anachronistic that Chloe would be a major player in a powerful trading company. The author even seems to realize this: she’s surrounded by grizzled old men who would naturally be the leaders, so a young pretty farm girl sticks out like a sore thumb. The interaction she has with Holo is important, but the fact that she’s there at all has never settled well with me.  (Note: I was later told that Chloe is anime-original, and therefore clearly grafted in.)

Finishing for this week I want to take a look at Lawrence’s role in the series. Lawrence is not an extraordinary person. He demonstrates a heightened degree of intelligence and cunning, which has made him into a successful merchant, but beyond this he is relatively unremarkable. I don’t state this as a bad thing, simply that it’s important to appreciate the incredible task Lawrence is up against: keeping up with Holo.

This is what makes Spice & Wolf different from most romantic series. Usually the role of males is more dominant: the guy is the one taking care of the problems. He protects the girl and through his effort woos her over. And at first Lawrence tries to do just this. He attempts to show off his business savvy, pose questions he thinks she can’t answer, and protect her when they are cornered by Medio Trading. But the truth is, she’s just as smart as he is and has centuries of experience that make her far more capable in nearly every regard. She gets better deals, figures out his riddles, and saves them both by turning into a giant wolf. Everything he can do she can do better.

The result of all this is two-fold. For Lawrence it means that as his feelings for Holo grow he has to figure out and overcome his own bruised ego. It isn’t a grand transformation, and in fact the series remarks little on it, but it is still a journey that adds a layer to his character. For the audience, it serves as a warning to not expect these roles or even find them desirable, for as we are reminded, “All men are jealous idiots, and all women are stupid to be happy about it. Idiots are everywhere you look.”

Post #3: Episodes 8-10, Concerns and confusion

After the last series of episodes we’ve seen Holo and Lawrence get through their first major ordeal together. This shows from Lawrence’s perspective – he is steadily more willing to trust and confide in her. However, for me Holo becomes more abrasive as she eschews any typical signs of increased intimacy for more teasing and abuse. This isn’t a criticism of the writing necessarily, as it would entirely appropriate for her character to try and distance herself from mortals by ensuring that they know their place, if even in jest. That said, from a human perspective it really starts to hurt because she just won’t give him a break.

This irritation with her distancing act is actually exacerbated by her over-fondness for foods shown in this arc. I am unsure if this behavior is meant to make her more relatable or demonstrate a flaw in her personality, but it comes across as clownish to me. In this instance I have a harder time giving the series credit for good writing because it feels so at odds with her normal behaviors. For instance, her drooling at the thought of honey-soaked peaches is truly inelegant. Holo, if nothing else, prizes that vision of herself and reacts negatively when it is questioned (“You snore.” “I do not snore!” “Just a little bit…” “NO! I DO NOT snore!”) That she would then make unreasonable demands to wake up the merchant and sell their wares and immediately leave the city doesn’t appear to be teasing but a truly thoughtless course of action brought on by her fixation. Having a soft spot for sweets is one thing, but it seems to be played just a bit too heavily to be in accordance with her overall character.

All this taken together is why I am happy when they meet Nora. I feel just like Lawrence: grateful that there’s a normal human female around. One that I don’t feel constantly on edge with, not knowing if I’m going to bit bitten. Also doesn’t hurt that that I apparently have the same taste as Lawrence…

The last thing I want to both comment on and ask about is: what went wrong in his deal? And why is it labeled as greed?

So I understand that he caught the guy trying to cheat under the name of God, and that both as a merchant and good churchgoer his reputation would be ruined if it got out. He then squeezes the guy for double but asks for it in armor as goods. (1) This somehow incurs a debt to the merchant? I honestly don’t understand, because I thought he was trading for pepper not buying on credit. Either way, his debt becomes far worse when he finds out that the armor market is greatly devalued and that his goods are nearly worthless. But then this debt is transferred from the merchant to Lapatron Trading, which means he’s in debt to them and cannot pay it because his armor is worthless. (2) Why was his debt transferred?

These points, (1) and (2) are what I just don’t follow. I don’t understand why he had a debt when he appeared to be trading goods, and then why and how his debt was transferred. If anybody could help explain, I’d appreciate it as economics is…not my forte.

@icedwarrior I also noticed the huge quality drop in a few scenes as well. I’m not sure if they were there before and I just noticed them now, or if these episodes suddenly have that issue. Also to answer one of your complaints: The reason Holo accompanying Lawrence is a problem is because of the appearances. They are in a church-run town and a man has fallen on extremely bad times. In other words, in his friends’ view Lawrence has likely done something to anger God and this is his punishment. Not only this, it’s pretty obvious what he’s done: he’s dragging around town with a girl that can only be his mistress. But in their view, he isn’t even trying to help himself. He isn’t trying to change his life of iniquity, and a mistress is sure to be a money sink as well. Yet he parades her around in front of them while having the gall to ask for money. This is why he is consistently turned down, whether with nice-sounding excuses (“We need to save money for the crop season…”) or with water being thrown in his face. It isn’t until the last man that he realizes what has happened.

Post #4: Episodes 11-13, Finale and Holo in depth

These last three episodes are some of my favorites in the first season.

As I remarked before, what I dislike about the last set of episodes is that Holo‘s temperament doesn’t improve. They just got through a tight spot together and they are obviously meant to become closer, but suddenly Holo reverts back to her initial level of teasing without any balance of visible affection. While this may be accurate writing (more on this below) it still irks me and I find myself feeling quite annoyed with how she is portrayed. In the final episodes the series this is amended and, at least for me, feels more natural.

The primary scene that illustrates this is in the inn at the beginning of episode 11. I like it because Holo is earnest, while not completely losing what makes her unique. She acknowledges from the beginning that having her hand brushed away before was minor, and knows that the damage she may have done to Lawrence’s life is irreparable. Yet he has the gall to apologize for his minor transgression, and that shames her terribly. It’s really the first moment where I think she realizes maybe she isn’t superior to Lawrence in all ways. Holo has great personal pride, and while she acknowledges to herself that she is fond of him** she also has a fundamental attitude that he’s the lucky one to be with her. In this scene I think she first realizes that maybe, just maybe, she’s also lucky to be with him.

Being Holo she is far too proud to say this out loud, but what she does next is telling: she basically demands he confess to her. She suddenly wants to hear, to really know, that she does have his affection. Her domineering manner in which she has him retry it until he ‘gets it right’ is pretty typical of her powerful personality, but despite that she still earnestly wags her tail at the end – a sure sign of her true feelings. Between this and other scenes (such as when she kneeled and begged for Lawrence’s sake with the wolves)I feel like this series finishes itself well in the portrayal of their relationship, striking a good balance between teasing and underlying emotional bonds.

And speaking of the give and take, the final couple of scenes are also some of my favorite. Finally, Lawrence gets Holoback. The look on her face when he tells her that he probably called her name because it was shorter is priceless. And when she tries her heavy-handed approach like she did back in the inn, trying to put herself back in control of the situation, he completely turns it around by calling during the bells. And all this only works because we now know how much Holowants Lawrence to like her, again emphasizing how I feel this arc better sculpts their relationship

Other than this, I like Nora. She isn’t an award-winning character by any stretch. She is too young and we don’t know her for long enough to get more than the basic story behind her motivations. But despite being a slight, innocent, frail-looking girl she shows that she can look after herself. Her scenes involving the wolves are really serious. Just imagine what it would be like: middle of the night, in a dark and unfamiliar wood, you wake to the sound of wolves surrounding your camp. That is a primal human nightmare, but Nora has the ability to stand there ready. Even when they are fleeing she doesn’t panic, but instead acts intelligently to disrupt the wolves’ behavior. It’s really as Holo says: don’t confuse this girl for a sheep just because she looks tame. I don’t really see it as a “girl power!” kind of thing as much as yet another case where the series seeks to purposefully disrupt the usual stereotypes.

Finally, I have to admit that the last few episodes do highlight how poorly non-humans are drawn in this series. The scene where Holo attacks the thugs from Lemerio Trading is particularly atrocious. The action doesn’t flow and many of her movements look profoundly unnatural. I think it’s just as well that the scenes with Holo‘s wolf form are few and far between. Enek also looks really strange in many of the scenes he features.

**Addendum on Holo‘s Personality
I think sometimes people confuse Holo as a tsundere because she keeps herself distant at many times and has occasional violent outbursts. However, I really do not think that is accurate.

Tsunderes are motivated by the repression of strong feelings. Unable to handle their own emotions they are overwhelmed and try to cover them up, often even to themselves. This creates a very unstable personality because they want something so badly yet go about getting it in all the wrong ways. In particular they frequently turn to violence in their confusion, seeking to give the impression that they are not besotted as well as perpetuating a self-image of being in control (which they are clearly not). Over time they warm up if the male is patient enough to put up with their antics, soothing their fears of rejection.

Holo does not have these kinds of internal conflicts. She has a great deal of self-confidence and knows what she wants and how to get it. She readily acknowledges to herself that she has feelings for Lawrence as well. Her distance from him is not due to confusion. It is because of two things: pride and fear. Her pride as Holo the Wise Wolf means that she simply has a hard time weakening herself in front of others, especially inferior humans. Expressing affection always makes people vulnerable, and so she cannot bring herself to openly show her affection on a regular basis.

The fear is something I already touched on above. In the inevitability of time, she knows that she will outlive Lawrence. As she already has said herself: she is tired of being alone. She knows deep within herself that these times can’t last and that she can have no illusions that their love is ‘eternal.’ In this regard she finds herself drawn in with the moment, but also struck suddenly by a deep melancholy that has no answer.

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