The gap between the popular image of climbing Mount Everest and the stark realities of the climb is staggering, once you start looking into the details. It’s easy to romanticize the trip as a statement about challenging human limitations and conquering nature. Step one: Hike to the top of the highest mountain on the planet “because it’s there.” Step two: Stand triumphantly at the summit, looking down on the entirety of the world. Step three: Enjoy the feeling of indomitability.
But there’s nothing romantic about the actual process, which typically involves paying huge sums of money and wading through reams of red tape in order to spend an average of two months on a grueling climb with a low chance of success. The summit is typically only reachable for a few weeks or even days each year due to the weather, and many expeditions have to be aborted short of that final climb. Even today, it’s surprisingly common for climbers to die on Everest.
The lush, chilly animated French film The Summit of the Gods, based on Jirô Taniguchi’s manga adaptation of Baku Yumemakura’s 1998 novel, doesn’t try to sell the romantic view of Everest, or portray the dream of reaching the top as heroic or glamorous. Director Patrick Imbert focuses on the details of the journey, and the grim drive that would lead people to risk their lives, not for a quick and adrenaline-spiking thrill, but for a protracted, isolating, exhausting saga. Imbert’s film, now streaming on Netflix, acknowledges that there’s a kind of nobility in single-mindedly pursuing a cause, regardless of the costs. But he portrays that pursuit in a somber, thoughtful way, without glossing over how closely it resembles madness.
The story’s structure is telling — much like Citizen Kane, it features a journalist trying to reconstruct a man’s life by talking to his former friends, peers, and partners, reconstructing the threads of his history in order to understand him better. But the journalist, Fukamachi Makoto (Damien Boisseau), isn’t trying to paint a portrait of a dead man, he’s trying to track down a living one. Working as a magazine photographer, Fukamachi heads up Everest to take pictures of a Japanese expedition in progress. When they prepare poorly and run behind schedule, they’re forced to turn back early, leaving him without the photos he needed for his assignment.
Returning to Kathmandu to complain to his editor, Fukamachi briefly sights a man he believes is Habu Joji (Eric Herson-Macarel), a once-famous climber who disappeared years ago. And he’s holding a camera Fukamachi believes might have belonged to George Mallory, an explorer who disappeared on Everest in 1924. The mystery of whether Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine reached the top of Everest, 29 years before the first recorded summit, still haunts the climbing world, and Fukamachi hopes the camera will hold the answers. (The body of the real-life Mallory was found in 1999, but his camera was never unearthed.)
When Fukamachi can’t track Habu down, he retraces the man’s steps, from his childhood to his days as the prickly outlier in a Japanese climbing club to his solo career, attempting startling and record-breaking feats in an attempt to make a name for himself and earn the acclaim and sponsorships that will let him take on greater trials. It’s clear that Habu was driven by both a powerful obsession with pushing the limits of what was possible for climbers, and by an equally powerful determination to walk his path alone, for reasons shaped by the experiences Fukamachi gradually uncovers.
There’s a powerful sense of melancholy to The Summit of the Gods, somewhat similar to the melancholy and sense of alienation in the otherwise dissimilar (and also on Netflix) French animated movie I Lost My Body. Only one of these movies has a severed hand crawling around Paris fighting urban wildlife, but both are about people who’ve become emotionally disconnected from those around them, and have found a reason to go on by doggedly chasing a difficult task. And both tap into that French sense of ennui, a weariness of the soul that comes from finding most things mundane and unengaging. I Lost My Body’s protagonist finds his escape in chasing a girl, while Habu finds his in chasing ever-more-difficult climbs, and the dream of fame that might go with them.
But Fukamachi finds his in tracking Habu. He’s just as obsessive as Habu, and just as prone to leaving other people behind as he doggedly pursues his fixation. It’s clear that both men are remarkably alike, even if their goals differ. Both of them clearly see the barriers in front of them, and can’t find it within themselves to turn away from the chase and live normal lives, no matter how unsatisfying each new achievement becomes in turn.
The movie’s methodical pace and quiet, internal air take some patience, but the climbing sections are dizzying and emotional, with high stakes and realism-driven action. Imbert makes sure the audience feels every misstep, every crumbling foothold and loose piton, every trembling and overtaxed muscle or fraying rope. When climbers do face Everest, viewers who’ve seen photos of the ice walls and base camps may be surprised at the level of specificity in this film, and how hard Imbert works for you-are-there veracity. He doesn’t seem to be out to demythologize Everest, but he never makes it look easy or stylized, either. For most of us, this intimate, hands-on look at the mechanics of mountaineering is the closest we’re likely to get to the highest point on the planet.
That sense of going along on the climbers’ journey is the primary attraction of The Summit of the Gods, which keeps its other pleasures measured and minimal. The character animation is simple, the backgrounds often shooting for a simplified, only mildly stylized photorealism. There’s none of the energy or visual play that animation does so well. It isn’t quite rotoscoping, but there’s a sense of weighty reality that most animated films lack.
But where the film lacks speed or a sense of play, it instead brings in a form of awe, both at the scale of Habu’s endeavors, and at the clear danger he’s braving on his quest to reach the top of his field and the top of the world. He has his share of victories, but they all come with costs and losses. The sense that there’s always going to be another mountain ahead layers a heavy sense of inevitability over the story. The Summit of the Gods isn’t a joyous film, and it isn’t a dreamy one. But it does feel like a remarkably insightful meditation, both about what it would really be like to fight your way up Mount Everest, and about why people keep taking up the challenge.
The Summit of the Gods is streaming on Netflix.