The Winter 2020 Anime Preview Guide
Somali and the Forest Spirit
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Somali and the Forest Spirit ?
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It is perhaps a sad sign that my initial thought after getting through the first couple of minutes of Somali and the Forest Spirit's premiere was, “Well, this golem dude doesn't have a whole face, much less functioning genitalia, and his whole shtick seems to be that he doesn't feel emotions in the same way other beings do. As such, the odds of him marrying and/or lusting after this cute little vagabond girl he has adopted have to be pretty low!” It is a damn shame that my bar for slice-of-life shows about surrogate father figures is “Please don't let the dads sleep with or wed their adopted children”, but series like Usagi Drop and If It’s for My Daughter, I’d Even Defeat a Demon Lord have forever made me suspicious of stories like Somali and the Forest Spirit.
Thankfully, this seems to be a genuinely sweet and well-intentioned fantasy story. Not only is the relationship between little Somali and her Golem Dad very wholesome, this premiere lacks fanservice of any kind – no panty shots, no conspicuous bath scenes, no nude kids just wandering about and causing a ruckus. Late in the episode, when Somali is almost discovered to be human by the very prejudiced creatures of this world, a bartender berates a talking cat-thing for seeming like he might have lecherous intents towards a kid like Somali. It might be wishful thinking for me to read that exchange as the show's way of reassuring me that it thinks sexualizing children is indeed a Bad Thing That Should Not Happen, but I want to go into 2020 with a more positive attitude, so I'm going to give this premiere the benefit of the doubt. This isn't strictly about my opinions regarding other shows' treatment of its underage characters, either. That kind of fanservice-driven focus just makes for worse writing; when a show spends less time on weird romantic foreshadowing and more time on world-building and sweet character interactions, it can actually be cute and entertaining, without any need for giant asterisks or content warnings.
Granted, Somali and the Forest Spirit might be a bit too focused on cutesy tone-setting. My biggest issue with this premiere was its total devotion to aimless fluffery. We get some backstory from local beasts about the Monster-Human War that makes Somali a prime target for those creatures prejudiced against Homo Sapiens, a couple of scenes that show how Somali might slowly be warming Golem up to the whole “feeling emotions” business, a bit where Somali follows the aforementioned talking cat around, and that's about it. I liked when Golem used his creepy magical eye to take the cheapskate jeweler down a peg or too, but a couple light breezes worth of conflict isn't enough to get me interested in a whole half hour's worth of show. I might give this one the old three-episode rule to see if the week-to-week storytelling picks up in any way, but even if Somali and the Forest Spirit isn't exactly my bag, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to folks looking for a slice-of-life fantasy that stars a Golem Dad and his Nice Daughter.
Somali and the Forest Spirit was one of my top prospects coming into the new season, based largely on the gorgeous background art of its various trailers. Having watched the first episode, I'm happy to confirm that the show's terrific art design is accompanied by equally evocative music production, as well as a charming father-daughter adventure. The winter season is starting off strong with Somali and the Forest Spirit!
Somali's most obvious strengths are clear in all of its promotional material: its gorgeous painted backgrounds, visions of pastel color that bring its enchanting world vividly to life. From the cool blues and greens of the golem's home to the warm oranges and reds of the big city, every single setting in this episode is realized through absolutely stunning background design. Those backgrounds are ably matched by Somali's wide array of inventive creature designs, as well as the expressiveness of Somali herself. And all of these scenes are further elevated through the show's diverse musical backing, which ranges from wistful flutes to urgent strings and everything in between.
All of these aesthetic strengths are working in service of a story that will likely feel somewhat familiar, if you've been following recent anime trends. We've had a pretty steady procession of father-daughter slice of life stories recently, and Somali and the Forest Spirit is looking to be a particularly strong entry in the genre. Somali is a very endearing little girl, and her “father” the forest golem manages to convey surprising shades of sensitivity, in spite of his claims that golems can't feel emotions. Sequences like their day at the market gracefully convey their feelings almost without words, and the implied threat to Somali if her human nature is discovered gives her adventures an effective dash of genuine danger.
All in all, Somali and the Forest Spirit looks to be one of the better father-daughter dramas of recent years, and a charming, beautiful experience on the whole. Its excellent aesthetics are put to great use by a story that wants us to share Somali's joy of discovery, while its worldbuilding offers urgent conflicts that naturally highlight the anxieties of parenting. Smartly constructed and vividly realized, Somali and the Forest Spirit stands as a terrific introduction to the winter season.
In Jewish mythology, a golem can fill many symbolic roles, but the best known is the Golem of Prague, a creature built of mud and clay who protected the Jews of the city from anti-Semitic attacks. That makes a very good base for the nameless golem who takes in Somali, an abandoned (or lost) human child in Somali and the Forest Spirit, because he has made it his mission to keep the girl safe from all those who would do her harm. And in the world of the story, that's quite a few people.
At this point some of you may recognize this as being based on the manga Somari and the Guardian of the Forest, and however you choose to translate the title, this is a quietly beautiful story. This first episode is largely concentrated on world building, and although it is a bit slow in terms of action, it makes up for that in attention to detail. There's only one section that could be termed contrived info-dumping, when a patron in a restaurant “forgets” what happened to all of the humans so that we the viewers can learn that they were basically hunted to near-extinction after they turned on the beast people; other than that, the way the story's world functions is almost entirely done through Somali's and the Golem's actions and by simply observing the backgrounds. It's subtle on a level we don't often see (at least outside of Ghibli films) and it gives a sense of solidity to the story's world, what the late Terry Pratchett referred to as a sense that even when we're not reading about (or in this case watching) a place, life there goes on despite its purported fictionality. Building styles, foods, entertainments, goods – all of those things are quietly established in this episode, with casual statements about “human hunts” and tasty person-flesh passing over Somali's head. We hear them and understand why her new dad wants to keep her disguised, but her lack of reaction (and his lack of visible reaction) allow the words to just feel like part of the story rather than something intended to shock us.
That the visuals here are stunning is another major positive. The sheer breadth of character designs is impressive (the butterfly person is particularly good), and the small detail that there are still cat-like felines and regular songbirds adds a little familiarity to the world. Plants are fascinatingly varied and the use of different pastel color schemes for forest (blues) and city (pinks) is also lovely, although there is a vague Barbie Dreamhouse feel to all of the pink buildings in town. The darker notes are also powerful, largely because they're so off-key – when Golem opens his eye for the first time, it's frightening, and tiny Somali in chains in the forest is another discordant sight that hints at how humans are treated. (And I think those crows are the scariest birds I've seen animated since The Great Owl in The Secret of NIMH.) Those and the one scene where Golem looks at the cracks on his arm are our indications that this may not be strictly a cute and lovely story, and even if the rest of the episode feels too slow for you, it should be worth seeing where this goes.
Director Kenji Yasuda is no stranger to tales of little girls being plopped down in wholly unfamiliar settings; he did, after all, helm 2011's Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth. But whereas that was a more otaku-oriented title riding the final crests of the moe boom, this one feels much more like a slightly upgraded children's story, the kind where talking, often anthropomorphized animals are the norm and the biggest threat to little children is getting eaten because they taste good.
At its core this series looks like it's going to be a classic story of a seemingly-unemotional adult-like figure escorting a little girl on a grand journey; the opener, at least, shows them traversing all kinds of different terrains, presumably in search of long-lost humans. The first episode also suggests that the golem is abandoning its normal role to do this because it may not have the time left for raising the girl until she can survive on her own, as the cracks on its arm in one scene look ominous. No doubt there will eventually be more serious threats to the duo than just Somali wandering off, getting lost, and being menaced by a talking cat who says she “smells delicious,” and the fact that Somali's identity as a human has to be concealed is already a factor before the first episode is out; there's even a certain dark humor in the cat being chided as creepy for repeating the above comment about Somali later to friends, as it doesn't even occur to them that he could be talking about a human instead of a little girl in general. Basically, though, the essence of the story look like it will be an unconventional father-daughter relationship, with the golem at least being analytical and observant enough to pick up on the value of human behaviors even if he doesn't have emotions. (Or does he?)
What sells the series the most are its design elements. Most fantasy series will use settings that are blends of the real world and fantastical elements, but this series treats that as too simple. Everything here is different from the norm, whether it's trees or flowers, animals, buildings, or even the humanoid but definitely non-human animal people. Ordinary critters might have extra eyes or tails, and the animal people run the gamut of common animal types and more fantasy creatures. The golem is also wholly different from the norm, especially in how it is partly faceless but can split open its face vertically to produce a vaguely eye-like sensory organ. Combining its simple tale with full immersion in fantastical elements might just allow this series to work as a low-key tale.
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