The French animated adaptation of The Summit of the Gods brilliantly brings Jiro Taniguchi and Baku Yumemakura‘s work to life in a 90-minute theatrical story. Watching this movie will inspire viewers to either start a new hobby in mountaineering, or vow to never do it. Although the focus of the movie is climbing, calling it a “climbing movie” is an oversimplification. If possible, I recommend watching this film in theaters (with a jacket and a mask) and lose yourself to the grand beauty and brutality of Mount Everest.
Director Imbert and his co-writer Magali Pouzol synthesize the heart of the original material and leave you biting your nails at every harrowing turn. Their storytelling keeps the plot lean and focuses on the age-old question: Why do we do the things we do? As such, even if you haven’t read any of the source material, the plot and the character journeys are easy to follow. Condensing a novel or a five-volume manga into a cohesive film is no easy feat, but Imbert and his team are able to accomplish just that. The pacing is solid, and the leanest parts of Taniguchi and Yumemakura’s story are preserved.
Despite The Summit of the Gods being a completely different story from his last movie, Imbert has proven to be an expert across genres. Action, drama, and suspense come together as the visual and music direction keep you on the edge. Every close-up shot at a tool leaves the audience tense, wondering if something will snap, crack, or simply fall down.
The plot structure is a by-the-book three-act structure, almost down to the second of each 30-minute interval. But it works magnificently for converging the past and present timelines that alternate between the two protagonists, Fukamichi and Habu, as well as providing back-to-back tension that never relents. The first act focuses on introducing how Fukamichi and Habu crossed paths, Habu’s young adult years as an arrogant climber, and the tragedy that befalls him. The second act parallels Habu and Fukamichi’s struggles and progress in their respective journeys: Fukamichi’s fruitless hunt for Habu and Habu’s quick descent into complete isolation as he nearly dies trying to reach the top of a mountain. In the third act, Fukamichi finally catches up with Habu, who finally begins his latest solo ascension to the summit of Mount Everest during the winter after training for eight years.
There’s no clear backstory to explain Fukamichi’s passion for photography and Habu’s for climbing, but this is by design. Other than a brief childhood flashback, there’s no hard reason for Habu’s illogical determination. The lack of context for Habu’s passion for climbing exemplifies the innate and oftentimes inscrutable human drive to do what we do. Fukamichi’s obsession with finding Habu mirrors Habu’s own drive to continue climbing even after personal tragedies haunt him. Habu’s superhuman ability to survive—while chasing a white whale—indicates that the reason for his inexplicable devotion to mountaineering is more than just the climb.
Unsurprisingly, The Summit of the Gods is a quiet movie; there are many moments that linger on the paintings of white mountainside as a character scales it. The sounds of nature also begin to take over in the silence: the howling of rough winds, the crunching of snow, axes digging to the sides of mountains, etc. Habu isn’t a man of many words to begin with, and this is further emphasized as he ascends Mount Everest alone with Fukamichi following not far behind. In addition, the film’s breathtaking, photorealistic depiction of Mount Everest leaves you enchanted by its dizzying, frigid beauty.
Of course, there are also plenty of montages dedicated to the sport of mountain climbing, and Imbert and his team went to great lengths to showcase the tools involved in the process. But it is the wide shots that really put into perspective how small man is; as the camera pans outward, the characters become mere pixels to the behemoth of nature. In those scenes, the mountains and the environment become their own character. Unrelenting winds and unsympathetic winter mountains stay silent at the plights of the climbers, and it is those perilous moments that remind the viewer of the limitations of being human. Choosing the most difficult conditions in spite of that—such as solo climbing during the dead of winter—is nothing but a testament to man’s unrelenting search for fulfillment.
Even after Fukamichi develops the photos from Mallory’s camera, the audience never sees what those photos contain, and Fukamichi himself doesn’t look particularly happy. It’s then that Fukamichi arrives at the same conclusion as Habu made years ago: the answer he was seeking is not enough to satisfy him. The summit is just a step, and after that is to keep going.
Director Imbert’s vision leaves the viewer hungry for more; perhaps side stories to flesh out the subplots of the manga. The French team behind The Summit of the Gods have designed a playbook for future adaptations to follow. After the screening at the Animation is Film Festival, I’m both excited for Patrick Imbert’s next work as well as more French animated adaptations of Japanese manga.
The Summit of the Gods arrives in U.S. theaters on Nov. 24 and will be available through Netflix on Nov. 30.