Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Somari and the Guardian of the Forest
Humanity has fought its last battle and lost, and now beast people rule the earth. Among these non-human folk are the Golem Tribe, long-lived creatures who protect the forests and ensure the continuation of wildlife. One of these golems stumbles across a human child in his woods one day, and he decides to leave the forest to find more humans for her to live with. Thus begins the tale of Somari and her strange new father and they comb the world, looking for a place she can call home.
In Jewish folklore, golems are inhuman, animated beings created by someone close to divinity, typically a rabbi. The most famous, of course, is the Golem of Prague, who defended the Ghetto from anti-Semitic attackers, but there are also tales of golems created for such simple things as helping with household chores. Whatever the case, the role of the golem is typically to protect and serve, and that forms a solid mythological base for the premise of Yako Gureishi's Somari and the Guardian of the Forest, a tale about a young human girl and the golem who becomes her de facto father.
The story takes place in a future where humans have waged and lost a war against the other intelligent beings sharing their planet, people with animal or insect-like features. At first humans got along fine with this other race, but, people being people (which is essentially how the other group phrases it), they end up resenting and fearing those who aren't like them and war ensues. With the humans' loss, they became a hunted species, sold as slaves, raised as pets, and hunted for food and sport. Now free humans are few and far between, basically taking on the status of a species in our world like tigers – desired for status reasons, hunted, and trying to survive in a world that can't quite make itself leave them alone.
When the eponymous Guardian of the Forest (who has no other name) finds Somari, she's dressed in rags and has a metal collar around her neck with some chain hanging off of it. It's clear that she's escaped slavery, although we don't know that for certain as far as being told it goes. She immediately calls him “father,” and although he has no facial expressions, he seems to take the appellation to heart, and decides to take her on a journey to find humans for her to live with. He has his own, very specific reason for this, even as he knows that he's abandoning his duty as a golem for her. This is the first indication that his experiences with Somari are changing him as a living being – over the course of the book, he repeatedly tells Somari and others that he doesn't understand emotions because he doesn't have them, but his actions say otherwise. His choice to leave his job isn't one borne of logic (although he does later try to present it that way), but of concern for the child who calls him “father;” he wants to give her her best chance, like any parent. The longer they are together, the more he expresses that concern – asking Somari to hold his hand so that she doesn't get lost, seeking out the means to make his own medicine in case Somari is sick or injured away from a town, teaching her how to forage safely. Their relationship is sweet and that we see it continue to grow as the Guardian learns more about emotion and that he does in fact have those feelings is a good inducement to continuing to read the series.
Character aside, the art for this series is also fairly spectacular. Each golem is unique, and the designs for the beast people are creative and varied. Some are clearly insect-like in that they may have wings or a proboscis like a butterfly, fur, horns, or other attributes, although not necessarily all together, which means that the Guardian is able to disguise Somari by simply making her wear a hoodie with horns at all times – when he tells people that she's a member of the Minotaurus Tribe, they believe him. The backgrounds are also beautiful – Gureishi is heavy on the detail but not overwhelming, creating the idea of a space with some well-chosen aspects and without overcrowding the panels. Forest scenes are particularly striking, but anything set inside a house or in town is also impressive.
The world of the story feels well thought out, with a solid backstory explaining the humans' situation and the way they're seen in the present. What is especially nice is that no one harps on Somari's past and how she came to be in the forest in rags and a collar in the first place. We can make our assumptions, as the Guardian presumably has, but it isn't dwelt on and Somari seems happy with her current life and doesn't want to think about where she came from. (It may also help that she's probably about six or so years old, although kids that age certainly aren't immune to trauma.) In general the volume does just enough to let us know about the cruelties of the world without beating us over the head with them, and that really works.
Somari and the Guardian of the Forest is, simply put, beautiful. It combines a charming, touching story with lovely art to good effect, and it uses the same form of post-apocalyptic fantasy that works so well in Giant Spider & Me - A Post-Apocalyptic Tale. This is the kind of manga that is worth downloading an app to read even if you aren't a digital reader normally – it's just that good.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Nice details in art and story, interesting world and emotional growth
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