Many people wonder about the motivation behind a mountaineer’s desire to risk their life in order to scale a dangerous peak, and George Mallory (1886-1924) has been attributed to have given the most famous (and also simplest) reason why. When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, legend has it that he simply said: “Because it’s there.” While the authenticity of this quote has come into question in recent years, there is no denying the profound, yet puzzling nature of those three words. Perhaps only the bravest of mountaineers will be able to fully comprehend them. If Mallory and his partner Andrew Irvine had survived their ill-fated 1924 Mount Everest expedition, further light could have possibly been shed upon the subject.
Jiro Taniguchi’s five-volume manga adaptation of Baku Yumemakura’s original novel of the same name attempts to solve the mystery behind what makes a mountaineer tick. The novel was written between 1994 and 1997, and the story itself takes place in 1993, both before Mallory’s body was found sans his Kodak camera in 1999. The manga, however, first began in the year 2000. The story begins as detective tale of sorts, as Japanese expedition photographer Makoto Fukamachi discovers 1920s Kodak camera in Kathmandu, Nepal. Fukamachi acquires the camera and one thing leads to another, as circumstances surrounding the camera eventually cause him to encounter a mysterious man called Jouji Habu.
The early portions of the story dealing with Fukamachi do not make for a compelling read. All the investigative work, the deviousness of the shop owner who sold the camera to Fukamachi and the all the run around that comes with it just are not that attention-grabbing for most of the first two chapters. Feels like a run-of-the-mill detective story with the usual character archetypes and appropriate writing style involved. However, the tone eventually shifts from that of a detective story to that of a back-story.
Having lost the camera, Fukamachi was left with no leads, save for Habu. Fascinated by the mysterious man after realizing that he is a famous Japanese mountaineer, Fukamachi utilizes his connections to learn all that he can about Habu’s past. This is where the story truly becomes a compelling one. Discovering the motivations behind this seemingly fearless climber makes for an excellent, page-turner of an exploration into the heart and soul of the mountaineer. In fact, chapters three through eight go by so fast that many readers will find themselves anxious for more as the volume appropriately ends on — pardon the pun — a cliffhanger.
Combing the rich storytelling of Jouji Habu’s back-story with Jiro Taniguchi’s gorgeously detailed artwork adds so very much to the experience. The hustle and bustle of Kathmandu feels incredibly authentic and detailed, as do each and every climbing sequence contained within the book. In fact, the more intense climbs are drawn so well to the point of making one’s heart race with excitement. So much so, that it feels as though you are right there with him — as if you are Habu’s partner. If he makes a mistake, then that means you are both in some major peril. Yes, Taniguchi’s background artwork is really that good. HIs character artwork is another story however.
Taniguchi’s character designs and posture are just as realistic and detailed as the backgrounds, but his facial expressions often appear stiff. This is most evident during conversations, as the expressions of each character tend to lack the liveliness found in countless other manga. Smiles do not seem quite as friendly; anger does not come across quite as aggressively, etc. Think of it this way: Taniguchi’s facial expressions are the polar opposite of an artist along the lines of, say, Inio Asano. Asano puts so much effort and heart into his expressions, while Taniguchi, on the other hand, does not put quite enough effort or heart into them. They are not completely devoid of emotion by any stretch, but they could certainly use more of it.
Though it gets off to a bit of a slow start, The Summit of the Gods makes for a very involving read. Jouji Habu’s back-story is so skillfully told with such beautiful artistry that one can easily forgive the dry, meandering nature of the opening two chapters. The best part? There is still more of Habu’s story to tell.