At some point in your childhood, a well-meaning adult — a parent, a teacher, Mr. Rodgers — exhorted you “not to judge a book by its cover.” I’m not as diligent about following that advice as I should be, though I have enough experience as a consumer to correctly guess a book’s contents and intended audience from the packaging. Every now and then, however, I completely misjudge a title, as I did with volume four of Spice and Wolf. The cover suggested a fantasy-adventure in a medieval setting — perhaps something along the lines of Claymore — but the story read more like an economics textbook with sexy illustrations.
Ostensibly, Spice and Wolf focuses on the relationship between Holo, a six-hundred-year-old wolf god, and Lawrence, a twenty-five-year-old human. The two meet cute when Holo stows away in Lawrence’s wagon, looking for a ride to her homeland of Yoitsu. Though they’re temperamental opposites — Holo is crafty and impulsive, Lawrence is deliberate and careful — the two discover that they make good business partners; Holo’s ability to manipulate trading partners complements Lawrence’s financial acumen and risk assessment skills.
That’s not a bad premise for a manga; in the right hands, Holo and Lawrence’s travels could be the basis for a smart social satire or an engaging comedy. Unfortunately, the script frequently requires Lawrence to explain the finer points of loans, currency, and inventory control to Holo, expositions that are about as much fun to read as a chapter from Modern Management: Concepts and Skills. Holo’s responses are equally stultifying; in one scene, she cheerfully tells Lawrence, “It’s my intention to pay you back with interest. That means the more I borrow, the more you profit.” Ace student, that Holo.
These tedious exchanges about interest rates and guild politics are occasionally interrupted by comic interludes, usually prompted by Holo’s discovery of a stash of booze or Holo’s decision to groom her tail, an elaborate procedure that requires her to assume a number of fetching poses as she preens. If there was any chemistry between Holo and Lawrence, these scenes might not feel so completely perfunctory, but they serve little purpose beyond catering to the male reader’s gaze. Worse still, the story lacks any sense of urgency or purpose; the dramatic climax of volume four involves Lawrence discovering that he bought a wagon’s worth of worthless armor. There’s more at stake in a typical episode of The Apprentice, and they’re hawking salad dressing and mattresses.
Yet for all my criticisms of Spice and Wolf, I can see why the series has a devoted following. The artwork is immaculate, with clean lines, appealing character designs, and meticulously rendered landscapes, buildings, and urban markets; Keito Koume’s crowd scenes bustle with activity, as characters negotiate deals and flirt with each other, bringing the walled medieval towns to vivid life. The supporting cast, too, boasts some memorable characters. In volume four, for example, Lawrence and Holo cross paths with Norah, a shepherdess whose pleasant demeanor masks a complicated personal history. The volume closes with a bonus story showing us Norah’s visit to a local town, followed by a difficult night when she and her dog Ennek hide from Church authorities. It’s a simple mood piece, but it’s tense and effectively staged, hinting at the broad — even overreaching — power invested in religious authorities.
That the Church’s power and history remain mysterious four volumes into the manga points to the series’ biggest problem: most of the interesting conflicts in Spice and Wolf are so deeply buried beneath the commercial shop-talk that they barely register at all. As a result, Spice and Wolf reads more like Project X: Cup Medieval Noodle than a proper drama; what it desperately needs is a high-speed wagon chase, sword fight, or — dare I say it? — a love scene to goose the proceedings.
Review copy provided by Yen Press. Volume four of Spice & Wolf arrives in stores on May 31, 2011.
SPICE AND WOLF, VOL. 4 • STORY BY ISUNA HASEKURA, ART BY KEITO KOUME • YEN PRESS • 192 pp. • RATING: MATURE
LG saysMay 4, 2011 at 3:37 pm
I don’t know anything about the manga, but I love the anime. Holo and Lawrence are one of my favorite fictional couples, even though, in the anime at least, it takes them forever to even get around to explicitly admitting that they could be a couple. The economics stuff did tend to go over my head unless it was very, very simple – I swear, my brain turns off when words like “markets” and “exchange rates” are used. What kept me going wasn’t that, so much as watching Lawrence and Holo interact.
The bit with the wagonload of worthless armor turned up in the second half of the first season of the anime. I thought it was pretty well done because, for Lawrence, yes, there was quite a bit at stake. If I remember right, he was basically ruined as a merchant if things didn’t work out.
I wasn’t as impressed with one light novel I tried as I was with the anime. Now I’m tempted to try the manga to see if this is just a taste thing or if the story really did fall flat in manga form.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 4, 2011 at 6:59 pm
I could see how an animated version of Spice & Wolf might work better than a print version, especially if the visuals were strong and the voice acting was good. My comments make it sound like I hated Spice & Wolf. I didn’t, but I found it oddly flat — and given the intensity of some fans’ commitment to the series, I expected it would be livelier.
lovelyduckie saysMay 4, 2011 at 4:27 pm
The anime grew on me as I watched it, but it’s not a really a series I go out of my way to recommend. At some point I may read the light novels, but I have no intention of reading the manga. Volume 1 of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya manga was enought to scare me away from manga based on light novels in general. Until I see a review that convincingly states otherwise manga based on light novels are on my list of bad things.
Derek Bown saysMay 4, 2011 at 5:04 pm
I’ve found that manga, and western graphic novels, based on anything tends not to be the greatest thing ever. Whether it’s a book, a light novel, a movie, an anime, or whatever, the story is always best in its original form.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 4, 2011 at 7:06 pm
It’s true that many adaptations don’t work as well as the original, but I don’t think that’s a hard-and-fast rule. Have you seen Ghost World, for example? I thought it worked better as a movie than a graphic novel, in large part because human actors brought warmth and nuance to the characters that was lacking on the page.
As for light novels vs. manga, I’m just the opposite: I almost always prefer the manga. There are exceptions; I enjoyed the Welcome to the NHK novel much more than the manga adaptation, for example, but by and large, I’d rather read certain genres — especially fantasy and science fiction — in graphic novel form.
Derek Bown saysMay 6, 2011 at 12:04 am
I guess, for me at least, I’ve never run across a manga or comic that was an adaptation of something else that was actually well done. It works the other direction, with comics becoming movies, but for some reason comics adapted from another source just never have that oomph that original ideas have.
Derek Bown saysMay 4, 2011 at 5:02 pm
I think I’ve seen the first episode of the anime. Can’t remember why I didn’t watch more, other than that I don’t remember having any reason to watch it. I’ve never given the manga a look, but from what it sounds like it would be right up my alley, IF I were interested in economics. I like manga that takes a long time to read, like Bakuman and One Piece, but it helps if what is being said is actually relevant to my interests, such as the manga creation process.
Art can sell a series sometimes, but it’s rare. I remember that the one thing I like about Berserk is the amazing art. Dude knows how to draw some reeeeaaaally nice swords. That and rape demons. The last thing isn’t that great…
Kate O’Neil saysMay 4, 2011 at 11:15 pm
I haven’t read the manga adaptation of the story, mainly because I’ve already basically double-dipped by getting the anime and novels. From what little I’ve seen of the manga adaptation, it seems to be the weakest version of the story. The artist is perhaps adding more fanservice to make up for not knowing how to deal with the slow pace.. rather than tightening it up.
You complaints about a lack of action will be addressed in the next book, assuming it’s two volumes of manga to each story arc. The world building in the series is a slow process.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 5, 2011 at 10:03 am
From everyone’s comments, it seems as if Spice and Wolf works better in other media. I’m not intrigued enough by what I read here to seek out the novels or the anime, but I could certainly imagine that the long discussions about trade practices and currency are more interesting in the context of a novel.
Noura saysMay 5, 2011 at 1:02 pm
I love Spice and Wolf. I love the anime, light novels, and manga. The first novel was a bit dull but the third one was the best that I cannot wait for the fourth installment to come out. The manga is good too but I prefer the light novels. I just love the interaction between Lawrence and Holo. There is definitely chemistry between the two and it shows more as the story develops. I would be so happy if something romantic to happen but it doesn’t seem it will be for a while.
The anime is very good too. I will be watching the second season as soon as FUNimation releases it on DVD later this year.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 5, 2011 at 1:46 pm
Hi, Noura! It’s interesting you mention the chemistry between Lawrence and Holo, because I didn’t see that at all in the manga. Which of the various forms of Spice and Wolf introduced you to the series? I’m wondering if I would have had a different impression of the characters if I’d seen the anime or read the light novels first.
Noura saysMay 5, 2011 at 11:44 pm
Hi, Katherine! The anime is what introduced me to the series. I have seen the first season last year and then bought the manga and light novels. While the anime might appeal to all, I don’t think the manga and light novels will since they focus a lot on trade, economy and stuff. It is not necessarily all about Lawrence and Holo. If you are patient enough, you might enjoy it eventually. As I said, the first two novels weren’t that interesting for me but I loved the third, so I don’t know how it will work with you.
You might want to check out the anime and then decide.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 6, 2011 at 10:38 am
Thanks for the suggestion — from what you and everyone else is saying, it sounds as if the anime makes a better entry point for the series than the manga.
Having said that, would you like my copy of volume 4? If so, let me know and I’ll be happy to mail it to you. I’d love to see it go to an appreciative owner.
Noura saysMay 6, 2011 at 10:55 am
You are welcome. I hope you enjoy the anime more than you did the manga. I am so looking forward to get my hands on Spice and Wolf II when it comes out to DVD.
I would love to get your copy of volume 4 and I appreciate it but since I am living outside the U.S., I am not sure if you can mail it. I do not want to burden you, so if you cannot, it is fine.
Glenn saysJuly 1, 2011 at 3:46 am
Hey, you still have the manga? I would be more than happy to take it off your hands ;). -thanks
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 1, 2011 at 7:33 am
Sorry, Glenn — I gave the book away ages ago.
Chris saysJuly 2, 2011 at 9:33 am
Glenn.. That sucks.. I was a fan of the Anime, and that was what really stuck me into the series. Unlike others who look to the graphics and other small things that would “ruin” the experience, I will just watch it and enjoy it. After I watched the second season (subtitled), I had to have more, because it ended SO abruptly. So after some searching, I found the Light Novels on Amazon, and since I had the first book (translated by fans) on my computer, I bought the second, third, and fourth. The thing I am waiting on is the fifth book, because I have no idea what happens after the ending of the second season
*sighs* Why won’t December 13th come sooner..? I want that 5th book FFS.
Jade Harris saysMay 10, 2011 at 3:39 pm
I have to join in and say I thought the novel was better for at least one big reason I can think of. In the book, even without a first-person narrative, Kraft Lawrence’s perspective is still implicit so all the economic stuff is much more contextual and presented as standard literary detail. That can’t be done as much in comic form, so we end up stopping every few pages for Lawrence himself to give us a long-winded exposition instead of the narrative giving us seamless background data.
I think it’s still pretty good for a manga, but the novel is that much better.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 10, 2011 at 5:26 pm
In the book, even without a first-person narrative, Kraft Lawrence’s perspective is still implicit so all the economic stuff is much more contextual and presented as standard literary detail.
I could totally see how Spice & Wolf could work better in novel form; voice can be very hard to translate into pictures.
Jade Harris saysMay 12, 2011 at 2:34 pm
Right, it was a major problem I had with the Haruhi Suzumiya manga as well. With the novels narrated by Kyon himself, you get the sense that things are skewed from his personal perspective, but the manga presented his way of seeing things as fact. It was no longer Kyon’s negative or objectifying perspective on the characters, it was the characters presented in those roles.
Jordan saysFebruary 12, 2012 at 9:31 am
I’ve been pissed ever since Funimation decided to liscense this series. There were 6-7 volumes of the light novel already translated, but the liscensing had those stripped off the net. Considering it’s been about 2.5 years now, they have just released volume number 5 and are awaiting number 6. People like me, who read the translations before they were licensed, now had to wait years before we could continue the story. All because Funimation decided to make a little bit of cash. For one, the translations aren’t as good, and secondly they take a hell of a lot longer to do them. Screw you Funimation.