Somali and the Forest Spirit – All the Anime

March 2, 2024


By Andrew Osmond.

Somali and the Forest Spirit is mostly soft and enchanting, the story of a little girl’s journey through a wondrous world, under the protection of her indefatigable non-human dad. And yet bits of the series are really tough. Anime often plays merry hell with Western expectations of animation and children’s media. The medium includes titles which look sweetlychild-friendly but go to darker and bloodier places than Disney dared dream.

At the same time, Somali has been heavily promoted to Westerners. It was co-produced by Crunchyroll, and previewed at Western events including London’s MCM Comic Con. Did Somali’s makers know its sweet appearance would mess with us? Yes, fans are savvy. We know a cute-looking giant mushroom can sprout bite-your-head-off teeth, something that actually happens in Somali. But the series starts so cutely that you imagine fans happily showing it to their preschool tots… and heaven knows if the adults or tots would wail loudest later.

Somali starts in a lush green forest, more picture-book luminescent than the one in Princess Mononoke. It’s guarded not by a god but a Golem, a creature both magical and artificial, a fantasy android. The opening images of the Golem tending the forest’s balance, among flowers and fluttering creatures, link it to the little gardener droid in the space film Silent Running. Then the nameless Golem finds something new – a tiny ragged girl with cat-yellow eyes and manacles on her body. She’s human, in a world where humans supposedly no longer exist.

We skip perhaps a year. The Golem has adopted the girl, Somali, who sees him unquestioningly as her father. Thriving in his care, she’s playful, hyper-inquisitive, incurably merry and fearless. Now the Golem has brought her out of the forest, seeking humans like her. Father and daughter travel the land, stopping at towns and villages to gather information (though in Somali’s child-view, they’re really seeking scrumptious food). The Golem repeatedly says he has no emotions, which doesn’t stop him attending absolutely to Somali’s well-being and safety, as she forever runs after the latest colourful sight or cuddly critter.

We’re told this world is dangerous, though it’s a while before we see danger. Long ago, humans made war on the critters Somali adores. They look like upright animals (wolves, mice, rabbits) or mythic creatures (harpies, ogres) or like humans themselves (for example, witches are a separate race who can pass as humans). Together, this horde defeated and devoured the humans. “They made for good eating, didn’t they?” an affable troll says nostalgically. Not that it’s a problem for Somali. Her Golem father puts her in a coat with pointy ears and says she’s a little minotaur.

Far from a post-apocalypse, the series often recalls artwork from The Moomins or similar cuddly fare. Somali’s first child-friend is a little-boy rabbit creature who’s utterly adorable (and who spends much time fleeing Somali’s cuddles). But anime fans may remember that Made in Abyss had an adorable rabbit creature too, along with bloodcurdling horrors. Mostly Somali shields the title little girl from the dark scenes, which tend to be in flashbacks with secondary characters. But if Somali’s shield is the Golem, then the series warns that he can’t protect her forever.

The show is part of a reassuring tradition in sci-fi/fantasy stories. The Golem is a “robot” without emotions, yet it grows as close and protective of little Somali as any human parent, finding the equivalent of emotions in its rational thinking. It’s the opposite of all those horror stories about evil computers, ruling efficiently in moral oblivion. In Western SF, the reassuring tradition goes back to Star Trek, a series which celebrated the character of Spock for being more than the rational machine he endeavoured to be. The second Terminator film had the same dynamic between a boy and robot; the Trek series Discovery even depicts a human girl raised in Spock’s family.

But Somali’s reassurance has a sting. There’s a scene in which Somali begs for her father to promise he’ll always be with her; he says yes, and we know he’s lying. Somali is very different from the original Madoka Magica, and yet there’s a suggestion of a link between them. Madoka drew its power from showing the betrayal of innocent characters, innocent perspectives, as represented in pictures as soft and delightful as the ones that comprise Somali. Innocence always falls in the end. The funny mushroom hides its teeth.

The exhaustingly spirited Somali is voiced delightfully by Inori Minase, best-known as the pure-hearted (and fan beloved) ogre girl Rem in Re: Zero, who would have fitted easily into Somali’s world. Minase also sings Somali’s closing song. The Golem is voiced by Daisuke Ono, Sebastian in Black Butler and Erwin in Attack on Titan. Of the secondary characters, one of the most important is the harpy girl Uzoi, voiced by Saori Hayami, who was Yumeko in Kakegurui and Shoko in A Silent Voice.

The Golem is a creature from Jewish tradition. One of its few film appearances was in a 1920 German silent film, The Golem: How He Came into the World. The Golem (played by co-director Paul Wegener) is brought to life by an amulet to protect a Jewish ghetto, but it runs wild later on. In light of Somali, it’s notable that this Golem is subdued by a little girl, who calmly removes the monster’s amulet and returns it to lifelessness.

Beyond Golems, Somali’s imagery may have also been inspired by another vintage film about a man-made creature, Hollywood’s1931 Frankenstein,in which another man-monster encounters a little girl who’s unafraid of him. They play by a lake; there’s a terrible accident, and the girl dies. But a later Spanish film, Spirit of the Beehive (1973) shows alittle girl watching the Frankenstein film, then conjuring up the monster from her own imagination as a friend. Mamoru Hosoda cited Beehive as an influence on his own fantasy Mirai.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Somali and the Forest Spirit is released in the UK by Anime Limited.