‘The Summit of the Gods’: A French Adaptation of a Japanese High Altitude Tale ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

There are some photos that one can’t unseen. Perhaps time will someday strip away the image and the horror attached to it. Old age can be both brutal and kind. In the photo, the back of the man is bloodless, whitened to the alabaster of marble and looks just as smooth and cold. One can only see the back of his head and tufts of hair, ruffled by decades of wind. His arms are exposed but disappear into the rocks that formed his final resting place.

I remember the cropped version first. A fuller version of the photo reveals that below his waist he is indecently exploded and his buttocks appear shattered as if he was a fragile plaster of Paris object rather than a frozen mummified man. The remains of English mountaineer George Herbert Leigh Mallory were discovered in 1999. Mallory disappeared and was presumed dead when he failed to return from his June 1924 North Face expedition on Mount Everest (Chomolungma in Tibetan which means “Goddess Mother of the World”).

Mallory climbed with the much younger Andrew Comyn “Sandy” Irvine (1902-1924). Irvine was still a student at Oxford and a skilled rower, helping Oxford win the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Mallory had participated in all three British Mount Everest expeditions. This was the first for Irvine.

Knowing the circumstances and conjectures around Mallory haunt this film at every step, foreshadowing how it will end and yet, like the romance of Mallory, it leaves out an important component.

In the animated feature, “The Summit of the Gods,” there are some things lost in the translation from the original manga series written and illustrated by Japanese manga artist Jiro Taniguchi (based on a 1998 novel by Baku Yumemakura) to French (Le sommet des dieux was written in collaboration with Jean-Charles Osteréro, Imbert and Magali Pouzol), but this is still an awe-inspiring film about a rugged world, as alien to most of us as the exotic lands we visit via science fiction.

The film is set in the past, during several different time periods, most significantly signaled by the means used for us to record things and contact others. First, we’re in the time of Mallory. The original telephone booth in the UK (Kiosk No. 1) appeared in May 1921, so the telephone was not to widespread as technology. You recognize Mallory and Irvine by the clothing they wear and the accordion bellows of a pocket camera.

Flash forward, and we have a failed expedition that leaves the photographer Fukamachi Makoto (Damien Boisseau)  in a quandary. He calls his editor back in Tokyo using a pay phone. Is there a story? Will his photos be enough? Fukamachi is accosted by a stranger who offers him what he claims is Mallory’s camera with the film still inside. The stranger is chased and threatened by a man that Fukamachi recognizes: Habu (Eric Herson-Macarel). But Habu disappears and Fukamachi must return home.

Back in Tokyo, Fukumachi does some old school research about Habu, reading through magazines and watching VCR videotapes. He makes a few phone calls. Fukumachi comes into contact with some of Habu’s former acquaintances as well as Kishi Ryōko (Elisabeth Ventura), this sister of one of Habu’s former climbing partners.

In a flashback, we learn who Habu is and how Fukumachi knows him. The mountaineering world is small and in Japan, it is even smaller. Working in the high-rent district of Tokyo (Ueno-Nihonbashi), during a smoking session, Habu complains that it’s not the most talented or experienced climbers that get to go, but the best funded. One way of getting sponsorship money is by doing something no other climber has done, something more dangerous like climbing the Demon Wall in winter to make the first winter ascent. Habu also has someone else to contend with, another talented climber, the smiling and affable Hase Tsuneo (Marc Arnaud).

At a restaurant gathering, the club Habu belongs to welcome back the climbers who could afford to go on an expedition. Mountain climbing is a dangerous hobby and at dinner they celebrate that “everyone returned safely.” Habu is cautioned to learn to be less hard on his partner, but there’s a more serious topic of discussion–being tied to deadweight that is not yet dead. Habu declares, there’s “no point in both of you dying.” He would, he claims, cut the rope without a second thought.

That declaration comes to haunt him.  One day, he intends to climb alone, but he finds himself talking with a young man who greatly admires him. Although Habu judges the boy, Kishi Buntarō (Kylian Rehlinger), to be too young and inexperienced, Habu is convinced to take him on. Tied together, Habu and Buntarō have a disastrous climb that ends with Buntarō dying.

Habu continues to climb, aiming at attaining the Winter trilogy: the north faces of the Eiger, the Matterhorn and the Grandes Jorasses. He’s competing against Hase.

How that competition ends and what happens to Habu and if there is a pocket camera is something I won’t spoil in this review here. In real life, the search for the camera continues. Locating the remains of Mallory was possible based on accounts by Chinese climber Xu Jing in 1960 and later Chinese climber Wang Hungbao in 1979. Wang reported the sighting of an “English dead” to the Japanese expedition leaders, but died the next day in an avalanche.

Because of the nature of the story and the animation means to capture the great expanse of loneliness in these high altitudes, “The Summit of the Gods” is best seen on a big screen with a good sound system that makes you feel the wind around you. Director Patrick Imbert does a good job of giving you a sense of isolation and the painful slowness of the snowy climbs. The way the animation conveys hypothermia and high altitude sickness is more moving than perhaps is possible in live-action.

This is a well-realized tale about a specialized world of men and of men who thrive in isolation. Imbert shows a marked sensitivity to the Japanese culture, providing a sense of time and place.

What Is in a Name

The names of the characters have meaning. Habu Jōji  羽生 丈二(はぶ じょうじ)has a given name that is commonly used for the English name George. The meaning of the characters is “measure” or “stature” of “two” or “second.” That gives us a hint of how Habu’s life will be overshadowed by the younger and more charismatic Hase. Habu is an unusual surname with the first syllable meaning “wings” and the second “life.”

It’s not unusual for a Japanese man to have the number two or next in his given name. It usually signifies the second son. You can see that in the name of one of the original authors, manga artist Jiro Taniguchi. A second son automatically has less responsibility than the first son.

The name of Habu’s nemesis, Hase Tsuneo 長谷 常雄(はせ つねお)has a surname that means “chief” or “long” and “valley.”  While 長 can mean long, it is often used to denote leadership such as in the company head or shachō (社長) or eldest son (長男 chōnan). The given name means “constant” and “male” or “heroic.”

The point-of-view character Fukamachi Makoto 深町 誠(ふかまち まこと)is one that inspires trust. The first two syllables of the surname mean “deep” or “profound” and even “intimate.” The last two syllables mean “town.” The first name, Makoto,” means “sincere” and is often heard in recorded greetings (makoto ni arigatō gosaimasu).

The family name, Kishi (岸 ) means shore. The young boy who dies is Kishi Buntarō 岸 文太郎(きし ぶんたろう)and his name means both boy or man and sentence or writing (文), but his sister’s name Kishi Ryōko 岸 涼子(きし りょうこ), means cool (suzushii 涼しい). Both Kishi and Hase are surnames that signify natural geological features (shore and valley, respectively) while Fukamachi represents human culture. Habu also represents nature with the character for wings and life.

The original name of the novel from which this story comes is Kamigami no Itadaki (神々の山嶺) and the French and English translation are literal but Itadaki also means “something received.”

Further, the author chose to use the characters that are usually read: sanrei (山嶺).  Sanrei is a homophone for “mountain spirits” (山霊)but also three cases (三例) and worship (参礼).

In this film, we see three examples an experienced man perhaps hindered by a younger man: Mallory and Irvine, Habu and Buntarō and Habu and Fukamachi.  The concept of worship is readily apparent in Buntarō’s feelings toward Habu. The hubris of Habu’s words about cutting the rope heavily weighs upon Habu like a recurring curse that is somewhat lifted when he saves Fukamachi.

There’s another moment when there’s a brief flash of a Japanese name Mizuno (水野)ビル (Biru for building). This sounds like Mizuno 美津濃 or ミズノwhich is the name of a famous Japanese sporting good company (ミズノ株式会社, 美津濃株式会社, Mizuno Kabushiki-gaisha) but uses a different set of characters or syllabary. When Habu is grumbling that the club members who do get to go are ones who are not necessarily the best skilled, but rather the most financially able, he also talks about getting sponsors and this is when there is a brief switch to show the Mizuno Building.

It’s a Man’s World, But It Would Be Nothing Without a Woman

But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl

–James Brown

This film is a heroic representation of Mount Everest and the men who challenge her. It is believed that Mallory and Irvine were tied together when they fell, but whether they fell on their ascent or descent is unknown. The two pocket cameras that they carried have never been found. The world of mountaineering we see in the film is a man’s world. And yet there were women who climbed Everest and there were also women left behind.

While Mallory’s body was discovered, Irvine’s has never been found. Irvine was the other party in the divorce proceedings although the wife also had cause according to this clip of the divorce proceedings.

When he died, Mallory was only 37. He was married to Ruth Dixon Turner (1914-1924) and had two daughters and a son: Frances Clare (1915–2001), Beridge “Berry” Ruth (1917–1953), and John (b. 1920). That means the youngest, John, was only 4 when he died. The oldest, Frances Clare, was nine.

Japan’s Tabei Junko was the first woman to climb Everest in 1975. Tabei, who was married to a fellow mountaineer (Tabei Masanobu) was already a mother. She had formed the Joshi-Tohan Club (Women’s Mountaineering Club) in 1969 as a result of how she was treated by some male mountaineers.

In the film, “The Summit of the Gods,” the only female presence we really feel is that of the Buntarō’s sister, who forgives Habu and her brother yet we do not see how the parents fared. Who was left to take care of the parents? This is something that haunts Habu.

In the film, this individual striving to be the first is seen as a male endeavor and one wonders if this isn’t also a small part of toxic masculinity. The need to be first despite the risk and possible death goes against the collectivism valued in Japan and the concept of home and hearth and a man’s responsibilities in Great Britain. These men aren’t sacrificing themselves to save others. They are not failed heroes of questionable causes. They are men striving for goals that always lead to another.

As I watched Fukamachi photographing and following Habu on his final ascent, I wondered if Fukamachi’s very presence wasn’t a factor in Habu pushing himself further and harder as his male ego was threatened by the mere presence of another man. Of course, Habu and Fukamachi are a fictional pair, but  Mallory and Irvine were not. The competitiveness between men is something not necessarily verbalized but there but that’s another factor in the need to be first or foremost, isn’t it? It’s the kind of competitiveness seen in the company of men, the oneupmanship that sometimes restlessly lurks barely below the surface. That competitiveness can be both good and bad. In an unforgiving environment like Everest, it might prove fatal.

“The Summit of the Gods” was the opening night film of the Animation Is Film Festival. It will have a limited US release on 24 November 2021. On 30 November 2021, the film will be released on streaming platforms. In French with English subtitles.


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