The rise of light novels in Japan has proved beneficial to the anime industry, as anime adaptations of them are starting to become as common as adaptations of manga or videogames, and as a lot of them actually end up becoming series of huge quality. When I took on Spice and Wolf, I somehow expected that I'd have disliked it. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much such a simple story managed to hook me up, thanks mostly to the strength of its characters.
If this series seems to have a very basic and weak premise to you, it's probably because it does. Still, from this small seed managed to grow a magnificent oak, strong, beautiful and dialogue-heavy, even if somehow flawed by its linearity and this metaphor kind of died on me halfway through so let's just see what this anime does right.
First of all, the setting: we haven't seen many series taking place in medieval Europe, and probably none at all centred around commerce and mercantile economy. And not only is this interesting for its originality, but also for how realistically it's been pulled off: the landscapes, houses, clothes, all-reaching grasp of the Church, the goods being traded, down to the food, the authors (both of the anime and of the novels) clearly show that they did their research. The economy and commerce, too, are very realistically handled; I'm the kind of guy whom you could show a wall of hieroglyphics and a wall of calculus and who would make more sense out of the former than the latter, but even I could tell, because as I do with real economy, 50% of it I don't get and 50% of it gets me furious for what disgusting lengths of dishonesty can mankind go in the name of greed and money.
Second: the interaction between the two main characters and the evolution of their relationship, easily the strongest and most involving aspect of the series.
Third: even though there isn't much of particular depth or complexity going on, everything is told very immersively. For example, the scenes in which complex economic reasoning is explained are as interesting as the similar scenes from Death Note and Code Geass were; hard to follow, at times, but intriguing enough to at least make you TRY to understand.
Still, there IS something it does wrong: the fact that it has no single, coherent plot throughout. Being more like a series of short arcs, each is pretty basic and linear. Also, it misses one important thing: a satisfying finale. Now, when you're adapting only the first part of a series of novels it’s obvious that the finale can't but be in medias res and inconclusive, but there have to be elements that make it at least a bit satisfying, some cornerstone that makes it feel like the end of a leg even if not the end of the journey; here, the last episode ends just like any other, thus bringing the season to an abrupt halt that will leave you yearning for more.
I always thought that, while some anime hold up thanks to their storylines or themes, others do mostly thanks to characters so strong and memorable that even a plot about them going to buy a heater or playing a LAN party (/obvious reference) can be enjoyable. This is one of the latter type. Both protagonists are exactly this kind of unforgettably strong characters: their personalities, dialogues, emotions, evolving relationship, are written and conveyed so masterfully that you feel like you know them in person. Of the two, Horo is the one who shines the most: she could hold the entire story up by herself. Her charm, her pride, her intelligence, her wit, her strength, her funny side, her sad side, her progressive opening up, her particular Japanese speech pattern (Edo-period Oiran speech), the way she enriches Lawrence's character beyond his merchant one-track mind and is in turn enriched by him, all go well beyond your average cute girl, and make for someone you'll most probably want to marry by the end of the series. But you can't. She's mine...
The dialogues between the two are where Spice and Wolf really shines. But, the cast of secondary characters, while quite diverse, is pretty flat and uninteresting. Only two of them are given some exploration, but a pretty weak and superficial one.
The art quality in Spice and Wolf is in line with today's standards: solid and a pleasure to the eye throughout, with no considerable drops in quality. The character design is nothing worth taking particular notice of, except for the movements of Horo's tail and ears. The landscapes and the masterfully shaded lightning, on the other hand, are simply beautiful, creating an almost Miyazaki-esque/Studio Ghibli-ish atmosphere, expecially when combined with the theme of journey so present here. The clothes and expecially the German-style buildings are also very realistically drawn.
Yoshino Yūji's soundtrack is unbelievably fit to the atmosphere of the series, thanks mostly to the choice of instruments: these enchanting melodies are played by flutes, folk percussions, nylon acoustic guitars, violas, violins, even bagpipes and pan pipes. Just by closing your eyes and listening to some of this music, you can already visualise a crowd of happy peasants dancing around a fire, drinking beer and singing in German or Irish. Apart from a few tracks composed specifically for more adrenalinic or shocking or dreamy sequences, though, most of the soundtrack is quite monotonous. It gains a lot of points for the OP song, "Tabi no Tochū", and for the unforgettable, gloriously EngRish ED song "Ringo Hiyori - The wolf whistling song"; maybe also because of the adorably mispronounced (but grammatically perfect!) lyrics, it WILL get stuck in your head from the first listen. And it will NEVER get out.
If, while watching the first episode, you get the feeling you somehow got yourself in a Code Geass episode, don't worry, it's normal. We have Fukuyana Jun (Lelouch) as Lawrence, Koshimizu Ami (Kallen) as Horo, and Nazuka Kaori (Nunnaly) as Chloe, one of the secondary characters. Fukuyama does a nice job as usual, but I found his performance to be a bit less deep and interesting when compared to Code Geass or Onmyou Taisenki. Koshimizu, on the other hand, seriously surprised me: I didn't expect her to be THIS good; she manages to convey gracefully a very wide range of emotions, to actually BECOME Horo down to the speech manner. Most of the minor cast doesn't get enough room for their seiyū to do anything of particular notice, but the fact that they don't flaw their characters is I think enough to describe their job as "solid". I must say though that Nakahara Mai (Rena from "Higurashi..." and Nagisa from "Strawberry panic") as Nora, the only secondary character besides Chloe who gets some space, pulls off a very conving performance of an insecure, tired, but still strong and generous young girl.
In the end, even without a particularly gripping or intense storyline "Spice and wolf" manages to carve itself a place among today's anime, thanks to its interesting premise, unforgettable main characters and their masterfully crafted relationship, fun mercantile setting, and nice visuals. While not to be considered an absolute masterpiece, it is by all means a great series that I think will be considered one of the classics of this generation alongside "Haruhi Suzumiya" or "Death note".