story by Yumemakura Baku; art by Jiro Taniguchi; translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian
published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon; $25 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Photographer Makoto Fukamachi was a member of a failed Japanese expedition trying to scale Mt. Everest. While lingering behind at the base of the mountain, Fukamachi encounters Jouji Habu, a famous mountain climber who had left Japan and simply disappeared one day. Fukamachi tries to get to know him better, but Habu will have nothing to do with Fukamachi. When Fukamachi returns to Japan, he can’t get the mystery of Habu out of his mind. He decides to investigate Habu’s past to find out why such a revered and famous climber decided to live in obscurity at the base of Mt. Everest.
On one level, The Summit of the Gods is a study of obsession. The book opens with the failed Mallory and Irvine Mt. Everest expedition of 1924. Next, we have Fukamachi’s obsessions, first, with the Mallory and Irvine expedition, then about Jouji Habu. There is Habu’s obsession with proving himself through mountain climbing. Finally, there is the obsession of mountain climbers to conquer Mt. Everest.
Although the book is told from Fukamachi’s perspective, the true focus of the narrative in this volume is Habu. Habu was injured in a car crash and so walks with a slight limp. He chooses mountain climbing as a way to prove he’s capable of overcoming any limitations. He drives himself to scale more difficult mountains in the most difficult conditions. He’s not happy to simply conquer a notoriously difficult mountainside; he has to do it in winter.
Habu’s focus and drive leads to him quickly becoming famous among Japanese mountain climbers. He is considered a genius at discovering the quickest way to the top of a mountain. Fellow climbers admire his grace and ease scaling very daunting mountains. However, he is not happy with the adulation of his countrymen. He is frustrated that there is no Japanese mountain climber ranked among the world’s greatest, and he determines to be the first. But even that isn’t enough: he wants to be the greatest living mountain climber in the world.
In truth, Habu isn’t a likeable character. He doesn’t talk much. He only engages in social activities because he needs to maintain a minimum level of friendship with other climbers so he’s able to recruit people to be his partners. He doesn’t have any respect or regard for people who don’t share his climbing skills. You need the buffer of Fukamachi to give you a break from Habu’s single-mindedness and to put events in context. Yet, Habu’s obsession is quite compelling and you want to see where his passion is leading him and how he ended up living in obscurity in Nepal.
As usual, Taniguchi’s artwork is breathtaking. His landscapes are gorgeous. You get a sense of the majesty of the mountains and their danger at the same time. He makes mountain climbing look arduous. You see the strain and fatigue as Habu scales each vertical mountainside. Taniguchi’s attention to detail is perfect for this story. You understand the appeal of mountain climbing, but also how deadly it can be.
What is most captivating in the artwork is the faces. This is Taniguchi’s best work on faces that I’ve seen yet. He’s able to convey a wide range of complex emotions for Fukamachi and Habu. It’s all centered on the eyes. The character’s eyes really stand out and draw your attention. There is so much life and emotion that you feel like you’re looking into a real person’s eyes. I often found myself stopping and just staring at the a close-up of Fukamachi’s or Habu’s face, trying to imagine what they’re thinking and feeling.
This is also the first time I’ve ever had any complaints with Taniguchi’s art. There are about half a dozen panels where the character’s face is off. The first panel on page 21 is a good example. It’s a small panel where the main figure is standing several feet from the viewer. Fukamachi’s nose is just an odd triangle, and his head is misshapen. Because of how well done the faces generally are in this book, these few flawed panels stick out badly. I’m amazed no one caught these mistakes during the production process.
The Summit of the Gods is an engaging book. I look forward to the second volume. Baku has created great characters, even if they aren’t the most likable. You get sucked into Habu’s almost maniac quest to be the greatest living mountain climber. You want to know how he ended up in Nepal. The book leaves a lot of large loose narrative threads for the next book to pick up. I want to see how they all get woven together and what the tapestry will look like when the story is complete. (The publisher provided a review copy.)