The possession and performance of relationship in Spice and Wolf

By: Dya June 17, 20220 Comments
Holo and Lawrence sitting side by side on a cart

Content Consideration: nondescript nudity in screenshots

Fifteen years after the light novel series first began and twelve years after the last anime episode aired, Spice and Wolf is returning with a new anime adaptation. Long-time fans, in explaining the series’ longevity and their own personal investment, would credit the chemistry between the two main leads — the wolf goddess Holo and the traveling merchant Kraft Lawrence — holding out hope that their budding love will fully bloom on screen. 

However, the compelling, balanced nature of this romance may not be evident at first glance. Holo and Lawrence’s relationship is initially held back by the circumstances upon which they first meet, rendering Holo as an owned object rather than an equal companion and stifling both leads’ feelings behind layers of performative inauthenticity. Part of the appeal of Spice and Wolf is watching these two characters overcome the gendered norms of their medieval setting, as well as their own personal flaws, to achieve an emotional reciprocity that is narratively satisfying. Even just looking at the first few episodes paints the picture of the solid foundation that will unfold.

young Holo running awat from several men through a field of wheat

Ceremonial Possession and The Village’s Festival

The series’ early narrative explores how the commodification of one’s effort and goodwill warps the dynamics of a relationship. Wandering merchant Lawrence passes through the town of Pasloe just as the harvest festival is about to begin. According to the villagers’ beliefs, their pagan wolf goddess hides in the fields of wheat. In accordance with festival tradition, the person to harvest the last bushel of wheat becomes the wolf, and must be symbolically captured, tamed, and reclaimed for the next harvest’s success.

Lawrence later realizes that this relationship between goddess and village is more than ceremonial, when he finds a naked girl with wolf ears and tail hiding among the furs in his cart. As this “Holo” explains, she had promised a young Pasloe man many centuries ago to take care of the village’s crops, performing the role of “Holo the Wise Wolf” even though she never saw herself as a goddess. Over the years, however, Holo’s periodic choice to let the fields recuperate was seen as unfaithfulness on the part of the villagers, slowly transforming their relationship from one of mutual respect to one where Holo is simultaneously abandoned yet chained away, never to be seen for who she really is. Though she’s supposedly revered as “wise,” in truth she’s a figurehead punished for exerting agency in her role.

Holo is not bound to this toxic relationship by any magic, but by learned helplessness. In the time she’s spent in this one place, the world around her has changed: small hamlets have become bustling towns, and the all-powerful church would put her head on a stake if it learned of her existence. It’s an almost textbook reason for why victims of abusive relationships persist with them — because they believe there is no other place they belong. 

Naked holo arguing with Lawrence

But Holo still remembers the times when that wasn’t the case, the centuries when she used to freely roam the world, welcomed by humanity and even kept company along her travels. Her supernatural longevity gives Holo an advantage that many in real-life abusive relationships often lack: time to process and contextualize her trauma and enough power to safely pursue her own goals.

With this perspective in mind, Holo approaches Lawrence. To her, a worldly, itinerant man like Lawrence represents a way out of her own centuries-long abusive relationship and a chance to recapture the happiest parts of her life, when she roamed free with a companion by her side. And so, Holo joins Lawrence in his travels, asking him to bring her far north, to her homeland of Yoitsu. Not that she needs his dinky cart of wares to get there; Holo is also set apart from many abuse survivors in that she is unburdened by the constraint of financial dependency, though she still ends up seeking out someone financially stable to help her transition to safety. The unstated implication, instead, is that while she presents the relationship in contractual terms, what she truly wants is Lawrence’s companionship.

Lawrence saying something unhappily as Holo looks forward, somewhat melancholy

Codified Possession and The Businessman’s Contract

In the beginning, however, Lawrence fails to notice the emotional need behind said contractual terms. Lawrence’s livelihood may be a path to freedom for Holo, but it also shapes Lawrence’s inclination to view relationships in terms of contractual obligations and self-centered profit, rather than as committed emotional companionships. 

A traveling merchant, as often assumed by others of his kind, never settles down in one place for long enough for anyone to develop a romantic bond with them. Besides his contacts in his merchants’ guild, Lawrence usually has to build relationships from scratch every time he does business in a new town. Under this social pressure that discredits romantic relationships through gendered social roles, both Holo and Lawrence are instead forced to treat relationships transactionally, with men seeking out others and women accepting what they are sought out for. 

Lawrence isn’t a cold and distant person — quite the opposite, as being likable is a job requirement — but the kind of companionship Holo seeks does not even come to mind for him, even as he pretends to be her husband as a cover for her sudden presence. Not that many of Lawrence’s colleagues are convinced that the two of them are a true couple— instead they treat Holo as a good they can claim for themselves, or question what kind of leverage Lawrence holds over her. Holo’s own desires or influence don’t enter the picture.

Holo looking at the outfit Lawrence gave her to wear after putting it on

Their demeaning skepticism isn’t that far off, as Lawrence starts out by replicating the imbalanced relationship Holo is running from. As a precondition for Holo to travel with him, Lawrence effectively demands an informal contract that insures himself against all risk: Holo must pay for her own food and settle her debts to Lawrence before she can leave, but in a lack of equivalent commitment, Lawrence holds the right to let Holo go whenever he wishes. After all, business opportunities grow thinner the farther from civilization Lawrence travels. 

The terms of this relationship once again bind Holo while enabling the other party’s unconscious neglect of her. This manifests not long after the pair leave Pasloe. Holo chooses a set of fancy clothing Lawrence kept in his cart, and he protests. The scene is played for humor, but since Lawrence clearly didn’t prepare other clothing for Holo, it begs the question: was he planning on having Holo continue to be naked just so he could hold onto a potential profit? 

Of course, that’s a laughable conclusion, and Holo treats it as such. In general, Holo runs roughshod over the terms of their “contract”, begging Lawrence for the finest of foods and clothing until he acquiesces. Eventually, any talk about repaying debt falls to the wayside, because their honest intimacy is incompatible with the transactional roles they initially follow.

Holo standing between Lawrence and a merchant he's bartering with

Mercantile Performance and Shared Responsibility

Lawrence takes much stock in his skill as a merchant and initially tells Holo to stay out of his business transaction, using the excuse that Holo might accidentally reveal her lupine nature in public. However, in this way, Lawrence unconsciously uses another textbook abuse tactic, shutting out their partner’s ability to manage the household’s finances, effectively taking away their agency.

Holo rejects that out of hand, and Lawrence’s complaints die out quickly. But Holo goes further, pushing Lawrence to explain to her the nuances of his dealings, which transforms her role into that of a mutual partner in Lawrence’s mercantile plans.

Moreover, when Holo thinks she knows better than Lawrence, she isn’t afraid to step in. Sometimes she does this when they’re alone, such as when she catches someone’s lie with her sensitive hearing. Other times, however, she does this with aplomb. In one such case, Lawrence is haggling with another trader for the furs he has, fetching a decent price. Before they can complete the transaction however, Holo steps in with mock outrage. With skillful advertising, aggressive haggling, and a little bit of deceit, she manages to raise the selling price by 50%.

She explains afterwards that she didn’t intend to hurt Lawrence’s pride — she was just using the skills she had picked up from a different merchant in her past. What she lacked wasn’t inherent ability at a male social role, but opportunity; given the chance to act as Lawrence’s partner, she proves they’re much stronger as a team.

naked Holo flicking her tail at a shirtless Lawrence, who's turned away

Physical Performance and Fanservice

There is a tendency in anime to almost idolize the moment when a relationship with romantic chemistry manifests in physical gesture. Much emotional weight is put behind the moment when a couple first hugs, or one of them touches the other’s cheek or strokes their hair. 

For Holo, however, such physicality is only a playful afterthought. When Lawrence gets mad at another merchant for taking Holo’s hand and flirting with her, Holo calls out his behavior as a moment of jealousy, grabbing hold of Lawrence’s arm and resting her head on his chest. It’s a classic fandom joke to call handholding “lewd” because of how seriously anime treats the act, but Holo makes fun of how sensitive Lawrence was by showing him a more intimate gesture. You can almost hear her say, “But you know I’m more special to you than that, right?”

It is at this point that the topic of fanservice must be addressed. In contrast to the nearly puritan attitudes toward more subtle gestures of mutual intimacy between characters, fanservice tends to be in-your-face because it’s explicitly for the fan, or at least, an often assumed-male gaze from the viewer or main character they’re supposed to identify with. Spice and Wolf does not escape this gaze, but rather than centering on embarrassment or uninvited voyeurism, Holo actively performs—not for the camera, but as part of her deepening intimacy with Lawrence.

Holo leaning against Lawrence

There’s a scene where Holo and Lawrence, after being drenched in the rain, are facing away from each other as they wring the water out of their clothes. Lawrence keeps turning around to look at Holo to more naturally hold a conversation, only to look away from her naked body in embarrassment. While candid shots do appear, it’s only for an instant, as if mimicking Lawrence’s own hesitation.

Holo eventually catches Lawrence looking at her but is miffed when he still shies away. The next time Lawrence turns around, Holo splashes water from her tail on him as a penalty, and before Lawrence can do it again, she’s already snuck underneath his arm so that he can no longer look away, taking the opportunity to comment on Lawrence’s own appearance. While no fictional character has agency in terms of fanservice as such, since their actions are directed by their creator, the story once again takes something traditionally used to commodify female characters and makes it into an act of mutual intimacy. In shrinking that physical gap, Holo dares Lawrence to acknowledge their mutual attraction, and in a metatextual manner, closes the distance between viewer and story as well. 

Holo winking at an unimpressed Lawrence

The Encore and Lawrence’s Interrupted Journey

The fact that Holo pushes for equity and reciprocity on both romantic and financial scales is crucial to the structure of Spice and Wolf. Ultimately, the onus is on Lawrence to recognize his own flaws, which is a slow and sometimes frustrating process. Story arcs are structured to bring about this self-reckoning: Lawrence’s business dealings get him into trouble, which forces him to rely on his mutual trust with Holo to solve the problem, which in turn forces Lawrence to reevaluate how much risk from his business life is he willing to let strain their relationship. In this way, resolution of the business conflict and resolution of the emotional conflict are inextricably tied, just as rigid attitudes towards gender roles and relationship strife go hand in hand.

This thematic union makes the romance in Spice and Wolf an integral part of the series’ economic plot and intrigue, and vice versa. As a result, the series demonstrates greater care for developing the chemistry between Holo and Lawrence, whereas other series would treat a romance between different gender leads as a given afterthought. 

On the flip side, it is that same reason that makes the Spice and Wolf anime’s lack of conclusion that much more bittersweet. The series can only properly end when a mutually fulfilling romance between Holo and Lawrence fully manifests itself, but the original anime adaptation’s ending is the equivalent of stopping their performance before the first act. Yet, the fact that this journey feels so noticeably interrupted is a testament to just how believable Holo and Lawrence’s future relationship is, despite their initial dynamic. For twelve years, fans have held onto this belief, advocating for this play to get an encore. And now, their faithfulness has been rewarded.

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