This Anime Gives Mountaineering the Film It’s Always Deserved
The Summit of the Gods is 90 minutes of jaw-dropping animation and a fascinating analysis of the climbing mind.
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Climbing hasn’t had much representation in anime. Aside from The Summit of the Gods, which was released on Netflix in November, Iwa Kakeru! is the only other example that comes to mind. The latter is an anime TV show following a group of female competitive climbers which, unfortunately, focuses more on boobs and butts than crimps and slopers (although given the tendencies of some IFSC cameramen, this perhaps isn’t all that inaccurate).
In any case, anime like Iwa Kakeru! haven’t exactly given our sport a decent portrayal.
The Summit of the Gods flips that trend on its head.
Based on Jiro Taniguchi’s popular manga, which was in turn based on a novel by Baku Yumemakura, The Summit of the Gods is somewhat unique for an anime. While all its characters are Japanese, the animation was a French production and the dialogue is in French.
The frame narrative, set in the early 1990s, follows the journalist Fukamachi Makoto’s hunt for George Mallory’s camera. The camera could prove whether the English mountaineer reached Everest’s summit on his ill-fated 1924 climb before dying, meaning the highest point on earth was reached nearly 30 years earlier than previously believed. (Note: The events in the film occur before Mallory’s body was discovered, without his camera, in 1999.)
But Mallory’s camera isn’t the point of the film. The point is who has the camera: Habu Joji. Habu is a world-class alpinist who vanished from the public eye nearly a decade prior, choosing to live outside of the limelight for reasons unknown. The film flashes back to his early years in the 1960s, his rise as a famous alpinist in the 70s, and the reasons why he decided to leave the spotlight behind and go into hiding in the 80s, before climaxing with his attempt to solo Everest’s Southwest Face in winter.
The film is fiction, but Habu Joji’s story is true to life. Despite its simple narrative (climber attempts a difficult, dangerous objective) the film manages to touch on alpinism’s most captivating facets, from the ethics of a solo attempt to the reality of having a partner dead on the other end of your line.
The Summit of the Gods also showcases the struggles of a modern climbing journalist who searches for meaningful stories in a world full of contrived “firsts.” It covers the classic climbing relationship: a driven, skilled (and somewhat reckless) climber paired with a slightly less motivated, more risk-conscious one. It depicts the lengths (and risks) that competition and rivalry can catalyze in climbers. I couldn’t help but look at the subtle rivalry between Habu and his contemporary, Hase Tsuneo, another soloist, and see figures like Ueli Steck and Dani Arnold, or Alex Honnold and Dean Potter.
The dialogue between climbers in the film is also spot on. “We’ll make a name for ourselves. Do something no one’s ever done,” Habu says to his partner before they attempt a winter first ascent, hoping to garner sponsorships and recognition to fund bigger objectives.
This motivation, whether reckless or righteous, begs the film’s biggest question: What does it mean to succeed in the mountains? “[They] had failed,” Fukamachi says, referring to an Annapurna trip mounted by Habu’s climbing club early in the film. “Everyone returned safely, but no one reached the summit.”
So, if the missing camera proved that Mallory reached Everest’s summit, but then died on the descent, was his expedition a “success”? At the outset of the film, Fukamachi clearly believes this. By the end, we’re not so sure.
It’s worth noting that in addition to the respect with which The Summit of the Gods handles its subject matter, the animation is utterly sublime. It’s realistic and gritty, without any of the bulging, sparkly-eyed nonsense you see in pulpier anime like Iwa Kakeru! Some of the mountain visuals are so richly crafted that I wanted to burn up to the Sierra Nevada and set my sights on a summit. But even non-alpine scenes, like when the Japanese Alpine Club gathers together in a ramen bar, swapping stories over beers, are animated with lifelike warmth and energy.
The film’s setting, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is a perfect choice. The aesthetic appeal of old school gear (oval carabiners, figure-eight belays, pitons, canvas backpacks, and climbing boots that look straight out of an L.L. Bean catalog) and technique aside, it harkens back to what many would argue was a purer era. It shows the time before commercial mountaineering took over much of the Himalaya, before Everest Base Camp became a tourist destination on the level of Machu Picchu or the Pyramids of Giza.
When Habu sets up camp at the base of the Southwest Face before his solo winter attempt in the film’s final act, he and his two companions are alone in Everest’s shadow. No other climbers. No support teams. No cell phones. No camera crew. No drones.
It’s hard to imagine that occurring today.
I watched The Summit of the Gods a day after watching Nims Purja’s 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible. The difference between the two films is profound. Sure, one film is fictional and the other is not, but it’s more than that.
When you watch a film like 14 Peaks, even though it’s real, there is little at stake. Unless you live under a rock, you know Nims Purja is alive and well, posting on social media daily. You know before you click “Play” that he did climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. While you may be eager to see how Purja did it, you already know how the story ends. The same is true of Free Solo, The Alpinist, The Dawn Wall, and most other climbing documentaries.
When you watch The Summit of the Gods, that’s not the case.
Yes, the film is fiction, and climbing fiction generally gets a bad rap. Much of the appeal of our sport, at least to a third-party reading or watching climbing content, comes from the inherent risk. It’s why accident reports, epics, and obituaries are typically the most read articles in any climbing magazine. Fiction, of course, involves no risk. The characters portrayed are not real people.
But fictional works like The Summit of the Gods can mimic the reality of the unknown, the reality of the mountains, better than any documentary ever can, because the events depicted are occurring for the first time there on the screen in front of your eyes. You don’t know what will happen because nothing did happen.
But the film isn’t just enjoyable from a climber’s perspective. Like the very best climbing films, The Summit of the Gods will appeal to climbers and non-climbers alike. It might be fiction, but the emotions are human, the animation is sublime, the action is visceral, and the lessons it teaches couldn’t be more relevant in today’s world.
The most important of those lessons is that real climbers, both then and now, don’t climb for anyone else (or worse, pretend to). They don’t climb for social media. They don’t climb for sponsorships. They don’t climb to motivate others, to prove that “nothing is impossible”.
At the end of the day, a climber’s achievements are for themself alone. Whether or not Mallory made it to the summit before dying… The Summit of the Gods concludes that it doesn’t matter. Only Mallory could accurately calculate and appreciate the worth and significance of his own climbing. The same goes for Habu, by the end of the film. The same goes for you and me.
When you climb mountains, you aren’t proving anything to anyone else (save for the weak-minded, keyboard warriors of the world, perhaps).
You aren’t proving to the world that nothing is impossible.
You’re just proving it to yourself.
Owen Clarke is a freelance writer living on the road. In addition to spending time in the mountains, he enjoys motorcycles, heavy metal, video games, and key lime pie.
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