Why do people (now a few thousand) climb Mt. Everest? George Mallory (who may or may not have been the first to reach the summit) famously answered the question by saying, “Because it’s there.” But there has to be more to it than that. Mountaineering is a dangerous, often lethal, activity. In The Summit of the Gods, directed by Patrick Imbert, the question of why someone may focus on a near impossible task is central.
This beautifully animated film is based on a manga series by Jirô Taniguchi, which was in turn based on a novel by Baku Yamemakura. When the manga series reached Europe many years after their original publication, they came to the attention of a French producer who started the process of making this film. (Which explains why the film features Japanese characters speaking French.) The animation creates a world of majestic and awe-inspiring mountains, as well as tense, exciting climbing sequences.
The story starts with Fukamachi Makoto, a photojournalist who has gone to Everest to get shots of Japanese climbers, when their attempt fails, he wonders what the point is off all this. But in a Kathmandu bar, he sees a camera that is reputed to have belonged to George Mallory. He later sees Habu Jôji, a climber who no one has heard from for years, with the camera. The idea that it is Mallory’s camera and could answer the question if he and his climbing partners had reached the summit becomes an obsession for Fukamachi, who begins to seek out Habu.
As the story progresses, it shifts from time to time to give us more information on Habu and the accidents that have shaped his view of climbing. He is very aware of the dangers of any mountain, but especially Everest. Fukamachi finds him as he’s preparing a solo ascent of the Southwest face, a particularly difficult climb. Fukamachi sets up at the basecamp and awaits Habu, planning on documenting his ascent.
Both Habu and Fukamachi are obsessed: Habu with doing something no one has done, and Fukamachi with finding Mallory’s camera. We might think of Fukamachi as something of Ishmael to Habu’s Ahab. The question of why they are doing this is always in the background. But it also becomes explicit. There is a point where each man asks the other, why they are there. Another question is why the summit matters more than life itself.
Each man has his own reasons, but it brings them both to the same place. They have each chosen a focus that they hope will heal an existential angst within them. So they come to believe that whether they survive or not is of less importance that what they are doing. They are committing their lives (and possibly their deaths) to their obsessions. The amazing vistas the animation creates serve to add even more depth to these philosophical ponderings.
The Summit of the Gods can be seen in select theaters and on Netflix.
Photos courtesy of Netflix.