High in the Himalayas, below the summit of Mount Everest, is Rainbow Valley. There, colorful, puffy, padded parkas mark the final resting place for countless climbers looking to ascend the tip of the world. Graveyards aren’t usually colorful places, but the high-visibility gear the bodies still wear paint the valley’s snowy canvas with a bright palette. It’s morbid, but fitting. An idiosyncratic way to go, one restrictive and isolating and too dangerous to mourn—let alone to disturb the fallen. But it is also one of lasting achievement. Rarely do tombs, urns and headstones mean much outside of immediate family, and rarer still do these physical monuments to memory represent a life spent in pursuit of passion. But on the mountain, some frozen remains, like the still-unidentified man known only as Green Boots, have become landmarks incorporated into the paths of others seeking the same goal. The Summit of the Gods is a mountaineering movie similarly devoted to its cause, finding existential beauty in our mortal struggles, especially if they lay it all on the line for a greatness only truly understood by the strugglers themselves.
Based on Jiro Taniguchi’s early ‘00s manga, which added breathtaking environmental illustrations and sharp, shadow-intensive character designs to Baku Yumemakura’s 1998 novel, The Summit of the Gods is a testament to self-motivation through the intertwined stories of two men: Mountain climber Joji Habu (Eric Herson-Macarel) and journalist Makoto Fukamachi (Damien Boisseau). Director Patrick Imbert’s French anime sees the two cross paths thanks to a legendary Vestpocket Kodak camera belonging to George Mallory, the English mountaineer who may or may not have reached the top of Everest in the ‘20s. Fukamachi sees Habu with the camera, then loses him. Fukamachi wants a scoop; Habu wants to be left alone as he prepares for his own climb.
In his search for the recluse, Fukamachi compiles Habu’s life, constructing his obsessive arc event by event through unearthed news clippings. With this intercut structure, The Summit of the Gods is both a great journalism movie and great mountaineering movie—each with a series of technical steps that contain emotional weight impossible to fully explain to an outsider. Why does one seek the peak? Why does one devote themselves to finding all the details of a story? These lonely goals are personal as much as professional. The end result is clear, but the reasoning behind it all quickly becomes murky and existential under scrutiny.
The clarity of the animation backs up these large questions with simple answers. The majestic, hazy colors of nature—bright blues and purples—contrast against day-to-day living in condos, barrooms and city streets that’ve lost all romance. The latter are utilitarian in their detail, so richly filled with realistic stuff as to dull you with familiarity. Then the movie takes you out on the expeditions, through the eyes of the people who live for it. The climbing sequences feature shots so stark and layered with slurries and sunbeams that their painterly abstraction will leave your jaw hanging in the snow. And yet, on a moment-to-moment level, it’s a detailed crunch of piton into stone—of clever rope knots and the muscular friction of hands and feet—undertaken by characters that move with a deliberate intent, their animations weighty enough to leave footprints and mini avalanches of pebbles. This realism joins the intensity of Taniguchi’s drawings for its action sequences, where a grand sense of scale is so naturally employed that your hands will sweat as easily as any of Free Solo’s daring endeavors.
Amine Bouhafa’s score punctuates sweeping orchestral and quiet piano tracks with celebratory riffs of funky rock, cheering on comicky pieces of style. Sharp red elevation headaches flash and perfectly composed single frames linger like splash pages. A particularly horrifying sequence representing the encroaching, freezing death of the mountains creeps and crawls in bloody red tainted by dark stormy waves. Rarely does the realism break for these pieces of psychological manifestation, but their restrained use makes them all the better.
The Summit of the Gods is a subtle movie, told in shades of white and degrees of silence, but its passion burns hot beneath the icy rime. The unknown finale of Mallory’s journey and the uncertain subsequent quests of his modern disciples simmer throughout the film. It is a war between the futile, Sisyphean nature of these climbs—where the best of the best can succumb, their achievements lost to time, and with those following behind them doing it faster, in more dangerous conditions, and with less help—and their subjective value. The Summit of the Gods’ complex storytelling and convincingly lovely vistas make its philosophical case well: Whether you’re risking it all to get to a peak, to get to the bottom of a mystery, or to create a painstaking piece of animation, you’re lucky enough to have something you love. It can be both all you need to keep going and the only thing that’ll open your eyes to what the world has to offer. It can also help you make one of the year’s best animated movies.