Saturday, May 6, 2017

[Anime] Spice and Wolf S2 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 II - 7.5/10

Post #1: Episode 0 and Discussion

This is the first episode that I have not seen in years, so this was enjoyable to not remember as many scenes. That said, I have a very mixed feeling toward this episode: it is half fantastic and half terrible fan service.

The good of the episode comes from Holo's internal monologues and dreams. They give excellent insight into how Holo thinks. As she muses on how the days, months, and years just slipped by when she was alone she cannot help but feel delight in the daily variety she now experiences. They also demonstrate how self-aware she is of her actions: she knows that at times she loses some control, and is bothered by how much more vulnerable she has become since her long solitude. But at the same time she doesn't apologize for herself, she merely reflects on it.

Easily the most powerful segment is Holo's dream where she finds herself standing on a snow field. On one side are her kin, the wolves waiting for her to come home. On the other is Lawrence with arms outstretched. In this moment she makes a clear choice: as long as he is there, she would like to be with him. But when she reaches him, the reality sinks in that he won't always be there. She will live to see him die, and that is a most terrible thing. Unable to explain this to him it eats away at her. In terms of quality character development, these are top notch.

However, it seems that they decided to also pair this with some profoundly mediocre elements. When I called it "fan service" above I don't mean the sexual variety, but simply that the interactions between Lawrence, Holo, and Nora are for the most part designed to entertain the audience. At the table Holo's forced jealousy, Lawrence's exasperated goodness, and Nora's cute innocence are all excessively highlighted. And later on the scenes involving the flirty interactions at the "sick" bed are just bones thrown to the audience, even stooping to Holo becoming so excited she hits her head (haha?).

Finishing the episode I felt a mixture of feelings. On one hand it's like they had an excellent series of ideas they needed to get across, and they did so amazingly well. I have a soft spot for the grandness of time and our own impermanence, and they nailed that firmly. On the other hand, it seems they feared the episode would be too abstract or depressing, and so were forced to throw in antics to ensure the attention of the audience.


As to Episode 0, the reason I dislike it is because the interactions have no impact. That is, normally their banter has something to do with the plot or is part of shaping their relationship. As much as Holo's teasing drives you (and me at times) nuts, the constant testing also tends to result in certain situations where she realizes she's pushed him too far, or suddenly there bursts through a moment of genuine interaction. These give insight into each of them and are what help us appreciate how their relationship works.

However, during this episode nothing of the sort happens. They play out their parts as established from previous episodes, but as it is adrift between the two seasons it has no relationship to progressing a plot or affecting their relationship. What happens in episode 0 stays in episode 0. I suspect I'm also influenced by some knowledge from S2: (minor spoiler) We never see Nora again. Because of this I can't help but feel that the design of this episode was meant to pander to people who enjoyed the little three-way relationship before it vanishes.

Posts #2-3: Episodes 1-6, irritations

Finished my late viewing of S&W2, episodes 1-3. I honestly don't have a lot to say, mostly because of how it ties in with what is coming up. I figure I'll write out everything then when the first arc is done.

One little thing I disliked about the version I was watching, though, was when Holo is upset and asking to have kids with Lawrence. In my current version she says, "you could make love to me." In the original I watched it was instead translated, "you could mate with me" which I felt was far more fitting.


If S&W is consistent for one thing, it is that it likes to imitate familiar approaches and then purposefully derail them. This arc is no different. On the surface it's yet another, "two guys compete for the affections of a girl" structure. The threat of losing the girl is real to the protagonist who must give it all he has to woo her. The series reinforces this view of the situation somewhat through Lawrence's internal imagery of Holo and Amarty together. In reality Holo was always on his side and this whole mess was to teach Lawrence to trust her and recognize his own feelings. It never was a competition, and Holo thoroughly belittles Lawrence for thinking that.

The problem I have with this arc is that it tries to close with a reconciliation of the protagonists, with the implication that this has further strengthened their bond. Now, I'm not Lawrence but if I found out that I had just spent several days in mental anguish just because my prospective girlfriend couldn't be bothered to talk things out and opted for roundabout manipulation to get the message across, I'd be rather angry. It's like...Holo has a grasp of psychology but no sympathy to accompany it; she just berates him again and again for being an idiot, when as best I can tell he's acting pretty reasonably for a human male. Better than most, really.

Which again brings us back to Holo and her personality. She knows he's a good guy, but she still cannot shake that insufferable manipulative superiority. This whole arc is a result of her not treating him as an equal and talking things out. Instead she views it as her prerogative to beat some sense into him emotionally. It isn't even the little tests the average female does, like seeing if a guy picks up on her cues as a sign of his devotion. She really just likes doing things this way.

So as the arc ends I once again don't attack the writing of Holo. She is who she is. But I do disagree that this event would lead to better relations. If anything it reaffirms the inequality between the two, which is pretty bad for a stable romantic relationship. Also the insight for Lawrence, that he really cares for her, was one that I think the whole audience already knew. What we're all waiting on is Holo to reciprocate.

p.s. Birds > wolves

Post #4: Episodes 7-12

As I watched S2 I was struck strongly how both arcs have exactly the same point: Lawrence chooses Holo over wealth. This insistence on proving the point , however, confuses me. During S1 I never had the impression that Lawrence was a hard-headed merchant who only cared for money. Sure he pesters Holo about her debt, but that is just banter with a small sliver of truth. By the end of the first season it was abundantly clear that they had formed a substantial bond with each other. If I were asked at that point whether Lawrence would part with Holo for profit I would have emphatically answered no. Yet, for some strange reason the entirety of the second season is devoted to proving what we already know.

Anyway, moving beyond that general critique there are two primary reasons I like this arc more than the last one:

1) Holo is back. Like her or hate her, her uniqueness is one of the main claims to fame for the series. When she is absent for several episodes the engagement of the series can't help but suffer. Moreover, now that Holo is back she reciprocates more of Lawrence's kindness. Yes, there are the quips and games and endless meddling but we are given many more instances where she is openly fond of him. She is seen resting her head on his lap, content to let him stroke her head. When he kisses her hand she is actually taken aback for a moment. And when she really is scared, she reaches out to him instinctively. Again, I know this doesn't impress a lot of people but it is a fairly large advance compared to her previous attitudes.

The other aspect of Holo that I disliked during my original viewing but appreciated the second was her suggestion that they separate. I recall feeling quite disgusted at her suggestion that they separate. I felt like they had already been over this and that it was just drama in the making again. However, this time around it made a lot more sense. Previous suggestions of their separation originated with Lawrence, and were often born of practical concerns. This time it was from Holo, and this made all the difference.

Holo is old. For her all things are transient. We see this clearly illustrated when Lawrence comments that people change steadily over time, and her response is, "Yes, just like rivers." Lawrence can't even fathom what she means as he lacks the perspective of time that she does. On this journey she is happier than she has been in a long time, possibly happier than she has ever been in her life. Simply to have everything feel new every day is a gift. But even all this excitement can't shield her from the realization that it will not last. Everything comes to an end. Frankly, when she says that she's accepted Lawrence will eventually die she's just lying to herself. She knows he will die and that there is nothing she can do about it. It reminded me of a scene from Babylon 5 where an immortal being reflects on the burden of his own timelessness:

"To live on as we have is to leave behind joy, and love, and companionship, because we know it to be transitory, of the moment. We know it will turn to ash. Only those whose lives are brief can imagine that love is eternal. You should embrace that remarkable illusion. It may be the greatest gift your race has ever received."

As I watched the series this time it really sunk in just how burdened Holo was with the interminable future. Unfortunately, the scene itself was actually sloppy with some strange cuts that made me feel disoriented. In the end Holo's fear is not addressed and is actually not even meaningful for the rest of the series; it is swept under the rug as Lawrence tries to reconcile with her while not even understanding what she is upset about. I found this quite disappointing in light of how potent this insight into Holo was.

2) The side characters are superior. In the first arc Amarty wasn't bad...he just wasn't great. He did the job he needed to for the story and that was it. Lawrence's merchant friend Mark and his apprentice were similar. I would have loved to see more of Dian (bird woman) but that was not to be.

By comparison Eve is a far more dynamic character. She exhibited just enough self-contradictory aspects to make her feel real. Originally introduced as mysterious and aloof she is actually quite gregarious given the opportunity. Her later deceptions in no way negate this. If anything, they reinforce that coexisting with her cutthroat attitude is a desperate need to be liked and understood that never completely went away. Her life has taught her the hard way that she has to guard herself carefully, but it hasn't extinguished that original spark. Even when she betrays Lawrence it is fear, not avarice or hatred, that motivates her. That she leaves him with the deed to the inn further illustrates that she bears him no ill will. Ultimately she is a sad character who is on a path of self-destruction. Feeling the world close in on her she pursues her ambitions with a mad defiance, if only to prove that she has lived. It's why her last line to Lawrence, that she has hope, is such a sad lie. (That said...can't Lawrence win a single fight in this entire series? Just once?)

Rigoro the scribe and his assistant nun Merta didn't enjoy as much development as Eve, but the way they were presented it hinted at so much more. While Rigoro is clearly educated and wealthy, we do not know his background. His fortune seems to be greater than just what a town scribe would earn so it is likely inherited along with his mansion. The deep cellars with old books would attest to this as well. However, his family is conspicuously absent and in its place is Merta. She clearly can't be his wife, yet she is continually alone with him serving as companion, assistant, and secretary. During the credits we see that Merta goes to Rigoro and that he embraces and comforts her. Aside from her Rigoro avoids the company of others, despite his friendly nature. The final piece of the puzzle is the greenhouse, a dream that is simultaneously extravagant and simple. He not only takes great pride in it, but clearly finds peace within as well.

Taken together, these paint an interesting picture of somebody who has suffered great emotional privation and who now appreciates the simple and quiet beauty of his home and garden. It tantalizes us with the story of two people who have mutual respect and understanding, grown to affection, that cannot be pursued. But rather than view it as a tragic tale, it strikes me as very sweet that perhaps in this world these two people were lucky enough to find a measure of happiness in each other.

Post #5: Summary of S1 and S2

In the end, while this rewatch gave me many new insights into the series my overall assessment remained the same. I have both seasons rated as an 8/10 on MAL, but if I were given more subtlety of ranking I would give S1 a solid 8/10 while S2 strays closer to a 7.5/10. If season two had more focus on side characters like Eve and Rigoro, woven into their interactions with our main duo, it could have been quite masterful. Unfortunately, the unnecessary emphasis on Holo and Lawrence's uncertain-but-not relationship overshadowed these brilliant side personalities.

In the final analysis, what I have to give S&W the most credit for is Holo as a personality. Even as infuriating as she is at times, I know of no other character like her. I never found myself bored while she was on screen. Her relationship with Lawrence is similarly interesting. Even if I was irritated by the way some aspects of it were handled, they form a unique pair in anime with how their relationship forms and manifests itself in their exchanges. Their development is the shining centerpiece of the story.

That said, I fear that this interplay came at the cost of story. It's as icedwarrior lamented in his post for 7-9: that once again the plot was about the personality conflicts between Holo and Lawrence. After a while everything is about whether Lawrence and Holo are getting closer or further apart. They can't just let their relationship slide for a few episodes. It ultimately robs us of the ability to experience anything else in the world. So even as the names and places change, there begins to creep in a sense of sameness about everything that happens. I suspect this is yet another contributing factor to why I prefer S1 over S2: things are still fresh in the first season before the repetition sets in.

And with this, I leave one of my favorite AMVs: Spanish Wolf. I find myself often returning to it as it captures the best the series has to offer: the joy of living and traveling, the give and take in the turbulent partnership between Lawrence and Holo and the romance that unfolds and deepens over several seasons. And of course, the rampant alcoholism.

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