The Summit of the Gods is a French animated film based on the acclaimed manga series of the same name by Jirô Taniguchi, which is based on the novel by Baku Yumemakura and is now available on Netflix. The 2D animated adaptation, directed and co-written by Patrick Imbert (The Big Bad Fox), It is both an ode to extreme climbers and a mystery that is revealed about what drives them to continue searching for new peaks to conquer..
A fictional story set in 1994, in which Japanese reporter and outdoor photojournalist Fukamachi Makoto and a climbing team are prevented from summiting Mount Everest due to bad weather. Frustrated at not having reached the top and brooding in a Kathmandu bar, a local comes up to him to buy what is supposed to be the lost camera of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, royal climbers who died on Everest in 1924.
The duo perished before returning to base camp, but the legend grew that they could have beaten the official couple that made it to the summit in 1953, Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary. The proof would be in the frozen images inside Irvine’s chamber, but his body and the camera have yet to be found.
At first, Fukamachi decides to track and witness retired extreme mountaineer Habu Jôji in an alley, grabbing the camera and disappearing into the night. This little moment pushes Fukamachi on an obsessive quest to find out what has happened to Habu over the last decade and what he’s up to now..
Imbert wisely constructs the narrative to initially unfold as a mystery, with Fukamachi chasing the lost camera and Habu. In Japan and through flashbacks, we are given the fundamentals of the history of mountaineering on Everest to understand the context and meaning of the camera. Next, Fukamachi conducts an absorbing personal investigation into how the talented but notoriously misanthropic Habu became a world-class climber. We see his early arrogance with his peers, a tragedy that informs his decision to climb solo, and even the impact of his climbing nemesis. Through first-person interviews and coverage of Japanese mountaineering, Fukamachi is our conduit to understand the selfish and tragic incidents that led Habu to that alley in Kathmandu. And it is through his dogged pursuit of Habu that Fukamachi comes to understand his own maddening quest to understand the mountaineers he covers, and why he feels so compelled to chase them to the world’s most treacherous peaks to tell his stories.
The film is animated with traditional 2D techniques, so its landscapes and aesthetics are generally beautiful; subtle but impressive. Animators portray these landscapes sometimes in expressionist styles, while other settings resemble watercolors. Japan’s color palette is almost like that of a Ghibli movie, with its cityscapes and nocturnal environments juxtaposed with stark renderings of gray and white mountains. Obviously the animators have gone to great lengths to relocate the scale, so you can feel the cold and icy weather that plagues climbers throughout their relentless ascent.
The Everest ascent sequences in the last act are spectacular.
And what the medium allows in a unique way is the capture of impressive performances, something that is almost impossible to do well with snow-saturated, live-action climbing movies. Filming in arctic temperatures requires face covering and oxygen issues, which means faces are hidden. But that’s not a problem in Summit of the Gods, where we can see pain, stress, or moments of unhindered introspection on the faces of lively Habu and Fukamachi.
In particular, the Everest ascent sequences in the last act are spectacular. The animators are able to capture the intensity of the climb with eerily photorealistic movement. Imbert places the camera in places that always intensify, or clarify, the scale of what these characters are attempting.. With the help of the music of the composer Amine Bouhafa, the stakes and the majesty of the climbs are palpable. Taken together, this is an exciting and often awe-inspiring spectacle.
And, from an existential point of view, the higher the two men climb, the more introspective the movie becomesAs Fukamachi’s ambition, but his lesser ability, make him reflect and, in turn, pressure the taciturn Habu to reveal his own truths about why he is climbing. For both the one outside and the one inside, the question remains puzzlingly the same: why does the search never seem to satisfy, but always tempt the climber to move on to the next challenge and the next summit? It’s a revealing look at those with insatiable and unsatisfied souls. Climbing is the reason, and dying trying is both maddening and fascinating.
The Summit of the Gods is a story that stands out for both its history and its animation technique. Imbert and the animators use the medium to show the heartbreaking scale, personal pathos, and serene beauty of extreme mountaineering. We can follow in the footsteps of the elite and decide for ourselves if the search is truly insane or one that brings man closer to God.