Part of what makes Spice and Wolf such an enjoyable watch is that it focuses so much on normally underappreciated aspects of medieval settings. There are tons of little details to be found here that usually are brushed by – food, for example, is lavishly rendered, and there is an attention to the changes in folklore, feel, custom, and characters in each town that Lawrence and Holo pass through. Each is uniquely fleshed out as a culture, but is ultimately expendable – both characters certainly do not double back to particular locales over the course of the series. And, if anything, the series chooses to focus on what most regular people would find important – where to sleep, what to eat, who are friendly people to get to know. It’s a series I find difficult to classify as fantasy – or well, at least the same sort of fantasy anime whose lineage goes back to illustrious predecessors like Record of Lodoss War. I’m hesitant to group it with that nebulous category of shows known as “slice-of-life”; it has some similarities in plot structure, to be sure, but I’m not sure if it’s enough to really put it in the same group.

Some series tend to skimp on the details a little more, painting with what amounts to a rather thin layer of varnish. The Sacred Blacksmith for example, has the characters eating meals that would be more at home in a modern izakaya, and even the new series trailer for The Legend of the Legendary Heroes has a prominent shot of the heroine eating dango, a distinctly Japanese dessert. As 2dteleidoscope puts it, the fantasy genre, or at least those fantasy titles still based around sharp edges and enchantments are very much now a reflection of a reflection.

The effect certainly isn’t completely jarring, but the commonalities in bright colour palette, costuming, and strange, Japanese-European cuisine suggest a very different sort of heritage, an mixture of Record of Lodoss War (which was in it’s core storyline drawn from actual role-playing game sessions), a bit of Fire Emblem, and a large dose of Namco’s Tales series. In some ways, it’s a mirror to the development of Western fantasy stereotypes, beginning with influential literary works like Lord of the Rings, then being fed further via various role-playing systems. Compare the following images:

Parn and Deedlit of Record of Lodoss War, arguably the grandfather of all "sword & sorcery" anime

Luke and Cecily, of the Sacred Blacksmith

Reiner and Ferris, from the Legend of the Legendary Heroes

Note in particular the various commonalities, despite the first being over a decade earlier than the last two – bulky metal plates, trimmed in metallic, art-nouveau gilding. As well, note the omnipresence of both a distinct male and female lead – both of them fairly capable and playing more or less equitable roles. Romance may or may not be present, but each side engages equally in testing and teasing the other. The last two are reflections of Record of Lodoss War (which I would recommend over any other series for that sword & sorcery fix); Spice and Wolf carries over this tradition in having a male and female lead, but little else.

Part of what makes Spice and Wolf so different, I think, aside from the shift in focus, is that it really draws from a completely different genre – folk and fairy tales, and mythology, rather than straight fantasy. I think that’s also part of it’s appeal: “Man meets and and falls for animal spirit” is much more the stuff of myth and legend, and that theme is in focus from the first episode – the tension between the old paganism and the spread of Christianity (or a Christian-analogue) is much more in play.

Maybe the Bering land-bridge still exists....

That’s not to say Spice and Wolf is a faithful recreation of Europe – consider, for example, the rather incongruous inclusion of beaver fur and tails as trade items in an ostensibly European setting (perhaps that’s why there doesn’t seem to be any sort of large-scale colonialism at play, Canada’s connected by a land bridge!) and at times the presentation of some elements seem more Shinto than Norse/Celtic/Gallic/etc.. But overall Spice and Wolf handles it with a considerable deal more elegance than most other examples. But then again, perhaps that is because Spice and Wolf in many ways is breaking new ground. Who can say – perhaps a generation from now we shall see Holo – or perhaps, one of her clones, if the show is at all successful in making a genre of itself – eating dango too.

In any case, I’m sure they’ll be the best-looking dango ever animated.