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Summit of the Gods (2021)

Makoto Fukamachi is a Japanese reporter and photojournalist for an outdoors and hiking magazine. After finishing an assignment he is relaxing in a bar where he is offered a chance to buy a camera that looks as though it might have belonged to George Mallory and Andrew Irvine

Mallory and Irvine were two British mountaineers who in 1924 attempted to climb Mount Everest and were never seen again. Upon leaving the bar he sees the seller tangled up with someone that Fukamachi recognises, a Japanese mountain climber Habu Joji but who had disappeared some years earlier. This encounter sticks in Fukamachi's mind and becomes his next assignment - he wants that camera as its contents could re-write history. His investigations take him on a journey across countries, uncovering mysteries and bringing him face to face with the Summit of the Gods.

It has felt like a long time since I have sat down to properly watch and engage with a piece of animation. Perhaps I have been watching too much that was similar (style and content) that I was waiting for something to rekindle my enthusiasm for animation, something that felt different and was exciting. When I saw the announcement for Summit of the Gods I was intrigued - it showed imagery at both a personal and geographic scale that just appealed. 

Then I saw Patrick Imbert was directing it. I had the opportunity to meet and interview Patrick Imbert for AFA following the screening of The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales at the LFF 2017 (wow, that was a long time ago). I had also really enjoyed April and the Extraordinary World and Ernest & Celestine for which he was the animation director. All of these were phenomenally entertaining, varied in tone, visual style, content and with high-quality to the animation. My expectations were high and I was quite excited to see this new feature when it was released.

I was aware of the Summit of the Gods manga (2000-2003) from Jiro Taniguchi (but not something I had read). What I did not know was that this was an adaptation of a novel by Baku Yumemakura that was published in 1998. Whilst I enjoyed watching the trailer I was expecting one kind of story, essentially the mountain climb we see in the trailer - a "one man versus the mountain..." but there was so much more on offer once I sat down to watch it. 

At its core was a quest or an obsession (politely a focus?) for Fukamachi about whether this camera of Mallory & Irvine's is real and if so, what is on the film contained within it. There is something familiar and identifiable about Fukamachi that he gives us this way into the adventure that we join him for.

This adventure takes us into the world of mountain climbing where we have Habu Joji as our guide - whether he is a good guide is an open question. He shows us the camaraderie, competitiveness, the drive, ambition, cheating, trauma, obsession and danger that is in all sports and physical activities. 

Danger is especially present with the great outdoors and the mountains they scale. Obsession, or if you prefer 'drive', plays a significant role in the motivations of our two main characters and it is interesting to see how it is explored and viewed through them. To say much more would very much spoil the story. The only thing I will add is that Imbert, who adapted the source material for this feature, and his team do a marvellous job of hinting at and showing why people put themselves through the challenges and dangers of mountain climbing. 

Whilst April and the Extraordinary World is a bit fantastical it is rooted in the real world - humans move in a believable way, vehicles have weight and heft - few flights of fancy or artistic flourishes are allowed. The other two features above involve talking and anthropomorphised animals with wonderous amounts of entertaining and exaggerated body movements. Summit of the Gods is something different and once again shows Imbert's skills as well as the team he built around him.

Whenever I see an animation set in our real world I always feel a bit conflicted. I (well we all) have an experience as to how the world looks and moves and sometimes animation struggles to show it well - for example without weight but with phenomenal amounts of detail. Summit of the Gods presents our recent history and a very technical physical activity at its core. It is setting itself a high bar to meet and utterly clears it. It is magnificent.

As we are taken on this adventure as Fukamachi investigates and goes on his quest we move effortlessly between intimate conversations in locations such as homes, offices, vans, coffee shops and street corners. All the locations are lived in and feel like real locations. We can all bring experiences from places like that we have been to. The dynamics of the conversations (their pacing and flow), how the characters move again feel so real. It all felt very human and was at a scale I could comprehend that it was not 'real'. The characters also have a wonderful naturalistic style to them. Their facial features and mannerisms situate them in their countries. As such there is no doubt to where this story is set and who it is about.

But in Summit of the Gods "the Great Outdoors" is its own character, almost too big to comprehend in its scale and complexity. Seeing a mountain in real life you know it is big but seeing the same thing on a screen I find some of that sense of scale vanishes. Here Patrick Imbert uses the human in the frame to give us that reference so we can go "...wow..." One moment we can be focused on someone trying to climb up a steep icy surface and then the camera pulls back, moves to re-frame the climber and we see where they have come from or where they are going, and in doing so changes our focus in the scene. This happens gently and at first to introduce us to the character of the landscape and once they are familiar to us new layers of its character are brought in.

The scenery is magnificent. Everest looks both alien and real, inviting and threatening. It never underplays the harshness of the environment and through previous scenes, we are well aware of the dangers and peril that the climbers are in. As the climbers move through their environment you see and feel the effort they go through, we see just how technical, precise and physical climbing is - a real triumph of this piece of animation. This presentation certainly gave me an insight into why people start climbing and why they do it - but it is not for me.

There were moments however when I was utterly terrified. It runs at a nice gentle pace but when it wants to ramp up the tension or shock it does so in believable ways. In all cases, it was a reminder of the dangers of climbing (alone or with a team). These moments never felt forced or crow-barred in to change the pace. One left me feeling very uncomfortable - partly because I knew where it was going but because they were so isolated on the side of a mountain.

I recommended this film to a friend (the day after I watched it) who was looking for something different to watch. They enjoy animated features but is not one of their go-to entertainment. They were also into hiking and mountain climbing so I was interested in how they would find it. I was slightly apprehensive to hear their views but needn't have worried. They thoroughly enjoyed it and also thought that the world of climbing was well represented ... phew!

Summit of the Gods is a wonderful visual experience - its scenery whether that be towns, cities or the wilderness is outstanding. It all felt very real and believable. The mountain scenery and framing gave a sense of just how big it all is and hinted at the beauty and dangers that climbers experience. 

When some of the climbs do not go according to plan I was backing away from the TV and also jumped! It certainly drew me in. The quality of the animation is high, the movement is great and naturalistic which complements the backgrounds perfectly. Based on this I would certainly pick up Summit of the Gods (either the manga or novel if available in English) and check out more of Taniguchi's work as I really liked how he drew humans. Patrick Imbert has done it again and I look forward to his next feature.



IN A NUTSHELL: Patrick Imbert does it again with this divine animated feature. A wonderful exploration of drive and obsession set in alien yet beautiful landscapes



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