A beautiful and thrilling film from a sure-to-be major voice in animation, Summit of the Gods drags you to the most extreme ends of the earth, immersing you in the cold, fear, and overwhelming elation of mountaineering. The first solo effort from director Patrick Imbert has both an epic sweep and an intimate insight into the birth of an obsession, and what that obsession can cost, even as it lends purpose and meaning to a life.
Adapting the manga series by Jiro Tanaguchi – which was turned into a live action film in 2016 – Summit of the Gods follows the journalistic quest of mountaineering reporter Fukamachi (Damien Boisseau), looking for the lost camera belonging to George Mallory’s doomed 1924 Everest expedition. This search leads him to a hunt for infamous yet mysterious climber Habu Joji (Eric Herson-Macarel), who hasn’t been seen in eight years but may well be in possession of the camera after an Everest ascent of his own.
Imbert mixes Fukamachi’s story with plenty of flashbacks to Habu as a younger man (voiced then by Lazare Herson-Macarel) as he achieves the exploits that make him a present-day legend, and it’s in these climbing sequences that Summit of the Gods is at its absolute best. Gorgeous and grand backdrops are almost otherworldly in their scope and rugged beauty, the humans within them rendered tiny and vulnerable, whether they’re scaling a sheer cliff in the summer sun or battling through the wintry peaks of the Alps. It’s properly transportive stuff, as awe-inspiring as it is tense, whilst still able to go small enough to express the mindset of those involved, their determination and quick thinking facing off against their more rational fears.
Whenever Imbert returns us to civilisation, though, some of this magic is lost. The animation itself is still very pretty, and the linking of Fukamachi and Habu’s twin obsessions is cleverly done, but it all moves pretty slowly whenever we’re not on a mountain, and the central mystery isn’t hugely compelling. Fortunately, there’s more than enough brilliantly drawn adventure to keep you gripped, and the climactic climb up Everest’s southwest approach (the most dangerous way to climb it) is suitably intense and emotional. The terror of the time spent in what is called the ‘Death Zone’ is particularly well-realised, expressing the pains and fears in ways a live action take simply couldn’t. It’s a stellar cap to a remarkable first film from Imbert, one that promises a magnificently ambitious career to come.