Summit of the Gods or Le Sommet des Dieux is a beautiful film that explores a journalist’s fascination with Mount Everest and the climbers who try to conquer her. Set in the valleys of Kathmandu, Everest has been a beacon to adventurous climbers for decades. The dangerous weather conditions and slippery steep slopes are not only challenging, but serve as points of pride for accomplished mountaineers.
It’s an interesting feeling, sitting in a theater in America, watching a Japanese anime dubbed in French with English subtitles. It’s a sort of wonder that’s reverential and progressive at the same time. I remember as a young girl, scouring the message boards for any links to anime. The style was something I’d become endlessly fascinated with yet I only had access to more pedestrian versions like Speed Racer. Sure, I got into Death Note and Cowboy Bebop, but finding them was a struggle. You can imagine my smile when I saw all of this beautiful anime at the hands of anyone who has wifi.
From Star Wars: Visions on Disney Plus, to the entirety of Crunchy Roll, anime has become as mainstream as traditional art. And technology brings the best and latest to fans and viewers all over the world. This particular rendition of Summit of the Gods encapsulates all of that. Produced in collaboration with an array of Japanese and French animation studios, and directed by Patrick Imbert, Summit of the Gods tells an engaging story that captivates you to the very end.
The film opened the Animation is Film Festival in Los Angeles. Afterward, there was a talkback with Imbert who discussed his journey to the screen for this enigmatic project.
Part Citizen Kane, part investigative journalism story, the film follows photographer Fukamachi as he tracks down legendary climber Habu. Habu appears to be in possession of a camera that allegedly contains the last known photographs taken by George Mallory during his ascent in 1924. At first, Fukamachi thinks the camera is a fake, a bum tries to sell it to him after all, but when he sees the long-missing Habu take the camera back from the bum and pocket it, he becomes convinced of its provenance.
Having long been off the grid, Habu is a figure who can only be found in the memories and stories of those who knew him. And very few knew him. Fukamachi’s interest becomes an obsession as he tracks down the camera and the man who holds it close to the vest. As he loses himself in the story he becomes inspired and finally answers the one question that everyone seems to have at the beginning of the film, “Why would anyone DO this?!”
The acting is fantastic and the dubbing fits the animation well despite it being Japanese characters speaking French, but the detail is wonderfully haphazard. There are small quirks in each character’s expression that gives them their own individual personality. The movie takes place over several decades and the aging in the characters is done truthfully and beautifully. Then there are some scenes that seem to be still except for the main subject, and it adds a sense of importance to the way they move and how they interact with each other on-screen.
These are things that are native to people, but to impress these slight ticks into animation is so thoughtful and telling of the professional level of production. Summit of the Gods is set in the ‘90s which is another interesting thing to watch. People use payphones and there’s not really internet and especially not smartphones. The way we see the climbers maneuver up the various summits is based on very rudimentary technology and sometimes only on the skills of the sherpas that assist them. Fukamachi’s voice actor, Damien Boisseau, gives the character a sense of urgency laced with a well-worn thread of pessimism that’s come from years of almost getting the shot. His persistence and perseverance are beautifully portrayed by Boisseau who fleshed out the character.
Habu’s voice actor was Eric Herson-Macarel. Habu’s voice is world-weary and laced with pain and fatigue. He’s still a remarkable athletic specimen, but he’s fallen too many times at the mercy of the mountain. Too many times the climb has taken more than he had to give, and yet he persists. Herson-Macarel’s portrayal accurately depicts the evolution of Habu’s journey, from cocky climbing phenom to a man who has carried the weight of his world for far too long.
Summit of the Gods is 90 minutes and feels longer, though not in a bad way. Once you’re in it, you feel inhabited by it. The film stuck with me long after the ending credits and I was grateful for the intrusion. A large part of the last half of the film is dedicated to a trek up Everest. Here we see the climbers confront their demons, their worst fears and limitations, all in the desolate winter of Everest.
We learn early on that some climbers endeavor to climb the south wall of Everest, getting all the way to the summit alone and without oxygen for the higher altitudes. It’s a point of pride to accomplish the goals and kind of a checkpoint for whatever the next height is after. Even animated Everest is imposing and harrowing. The sound design and visual enhancements make the atmosphere foreboding. When an avalanche of snow falls on a climber, you shiver, when he gets a sudden blinding migraine because of the altitude, you feel yourself clench up in sympathy. It’s harrowing and terrifying, and exhilarating and transcendent.
I’m not someone who has ever cared about mountain climbing, preferring instead to be in the “I’ll see it in a picture” category, or at least, ‘please show me the easy trail!’. I was never curious about the life of mountain climbers and why they chose that hobby and even more why some turned it into a lifestyle. And yet, Summit of the Gods held me rapt for 90 minutes and beyond as it explored the humanity and spirituality behind the climb.
I highly recommend everyone to watch this movie. There are some dark themes so it’s not exactly a family film, but it’s so much more than your usual cartoon. It’s truly a work of art.
Summit of the Gods will premiere in select theaters on November 24, 2021, and then will be available for you to stream on Netflix on November 30, 2021.
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