Somali and the Forest Spirit
by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Somali and the Forest Spirit ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Somali and the Forest Spirit ?
Curled against my grandmother's side on her sofa, I first heard about golems. Or, more specifically, the Golem of Prague, a man made of clay by a rabbi in order to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitism. That particular tale feels like it's at the root of Somali and the Forest Spirit (or Somari and the Guardian of the Forest, if you prefer the translation used by the English version of the manga), not in the specific context of Prague, but in the sense that golems are beings who protect people from those who would do them harm. In this story, instead of an entire group, the golem has tasked himself with the guardianship of one specific person: a young human girl named Somali.
At this point, two episodes in, we don't know much about the duo's backstory besides the fact that Golem found Somali wearing rags and chains in the woods and decided to take her in. An unfortunate info-dump in episode one does the work of letting us know that humans have basically been wiped out in the story's world during a conflict between humans and animal people, which is why Golem disguises his adopted daughter with a horned hood to make people think she's a member of the minotaur race. We know from episode two that Golem is trying to find her parents (or at least a human couple) to care for her. And, sadly, we now know what we inferred from episode one: that Golem only has a little over a year left before he ceases to exist.
So that's depressing. But Somali and the Forest Spirit so far doesn't seem interested in dwelling on that fact. Instead these first two episodes are a sweet exploration of what Golem and Somali do for each other as they travel through an exquisite dreamscape of cool-colored trees populated by animals with enough of a resemblance to those we're familiar with to appear magical with their additional wings and horns. The background almost feels like it serves as a metaphor for what's going on with Golem and Somali personally, as if our wonder at the beauty of the landscape is mirrored in theirs at the way their lives are going.
That's more profound for Golem, of course, because one of the chief delights of this series so far is that fact that Somali comes across as a much more normal kid than we usually get in anime about seven-year-olds. As far as she's concerned, her awesome new dad rescued her and now she's happy. That's still something of an amazing fact for her, it seems, as she's constantly looking around to see how other parent/child couples act and tries to adjust her behavior accordingly, such as the scene in episode one where she wants to hold his hand, and the way she's determined to help out when she and Golem stop over at an oni's house, because Dad's always helping her. It's becoming normal for her, the kind of happy normal we can infer that she didn't have before he found her in the woods, and there's definitely a beauty in that.
That idea holds true for Golem as well, albeit in a different, more bittersweet way. He knows he's crumbling – this week it's pointed out that the reason he wears so much clothing is to literally hold himself together, and despite his repetitions that golems don't have emotions, that one simple action of overdressing says that he absolutely does feel things – and that when he thinks about leaving Somali all alone, he's feeling fear. That that feeling might stem from another one, love for the little girl, is much too deep for him to even consider right now, but it seems very clear that it's not so much that golems don't have emotions as that they don't often get the chance to use and develop them. Given that their stated purpose is protecting the forest (or the physical world), that does make sense; if they get attached, they might not be able to keep the cycle of life going for their thousand-year lifespans. But now that Golem has taken on a new job, that of raising Somali, even just for two years, he's able to evolve in ways he didn't know was possible. It's like antlers on a rabbit – strange and new…and maybe not entirely without appeal.
At this point, there isn't much going on here besides slow, beautiful introspection in a lush fantasy world and one awfully cute kid. But the underlying concern for Golem and Somali, the worry about what could happen if she's discovered to be human (I'm pretty sure the oni figured it out), and the tragedy of Golem learning to feel only at the very end of his life give this enough of a platform to build on that it could develop into more going forward.
Even if it doesn't, this is still a lovely, slow show, and it reminds me of how my grandmother ended her Golem of Prague story back when I was six: that if he's ever needed again, the golem will come back. Right now, that's enough hope in this series for me.
Somali and the Forest Spirit is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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