Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Summit of the Gods vol. 1-3

I came across 'The Summit of the Gods' the same way I came across 'A Zoo in Winter'. That is, through the Jiro Taniguchi Manga Moveable Feast. Interested by the Manga Moveable Feast and then captivated by 'A Zoo in Winter', I thought that I would have read every available Taniguchi book by now. Somehow though, other series took priority and I am just now trying my second Jiro Taniguchi work. This time though, it's a collaboration with Taniguchi doing the art and Yumemakura Baku doing the writing. I enjoyed the first three volumes of 'The Summit of the Gods', but not as much as I thought I would, and whenever I get around to reading Taniguchi again, I'll be sure that it is another of his original works.

Makoto Fukamachi is a Japanese photographer wandering aimlessly through Kathmandu, trying to escape his bitter thoughts of a recently failed summit attempt of Mount Everest. Strictly by chance, he made his way to a climbing supply shop when a certain camera for sale caught his eye. A Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak Special. The very same model that famous mountaineer, George Mallory, took with him on his Everest summit attempt before disappearing. Could this be the very same camera that belonged to Mallory? And if so, what was it doing in Kathmandu? If it was indeed Mallory's camera and had images of a successful summit on it, it could change mountaineering history as we know it. As a journalist, this prospect made Fukamachi's heart race. Deciding to pursue the mystery behind the camera and how it made it's way to Kathmandu, everything led Fukamachi back to one man. The enigmatic and legendary mountaineer, Jouji Habu. In 'The Summit of the Gods', we follow Fukamachi as he tries to learn the truth about the camera and uncovers the tumultuous life story of Jouji Habu.

I would say in terms of panel time, there are two main characters of this manga. Makoto Fukamachi and Jouji Habu. But for all intents and purposes, Habu is the true main character and by far the more interesting of the two. Fukamachi acts more like the readers' avatar. We experience everything through him and his curiosity and actions drive the story. That's about as much as he was able to offer me in the first three volumes. I don't really like him at all and it doesn't help that his search for the camera inadvertently caused a lot of the story's conflict. Fukamachi is also kind of a "downer". He starts out the story moping around and throughout the series, gives the sense that his life is without direction. I was totally unsympathetic to this though and just found it annoying. "Woe is me! I couldn't make it up Everest and don't know what to do with my life.". And then with so much time spent developing Habu, the plot line between Fukamachi and his ex-girlfriend felt shoehorned in to make him seem more interesting, but it only succeeded in making me resent Fukamachi for taking panel time away from Habu...

Jouji Habu is a different story altogether. His presence makes this series worth the read. What a fascinating and well developed character. Most of the first two volumes are dedicated to telling Habu's life story in the form of Fukamachi interviewing his acquaintances and researching his mountaineering exploits. Though I enjoyed reading about him unlike Fukamachi, much like Fukamachi, he isn't necessarily a likeable guy. He is very selfish and mostly just cares about himself and mountaineering. He's also extremely honest to a fault. Often hurting others' feelings with his bluntness. And even as a middle aged man, he showed himself capable of being very childish. For all his faults though, he was also capable of moments of greatness and growth. As a younger man, he made it clear that he wouldn't hesitate to cut his climbing partner's rope if it meant saving his own life. But later in the story after making a connection with a young protege, not only did he not follow through with these words, but he did everything he could to save him. And man, was he one helluva tough guy. His extraordinary mount climbing feats made him a living legend, and fellow character and reader alike can't help but to admire and be inspired by him. His complicated nature and the exciting path he chooses to take are what made this series so engaging and why I am going to keep reading it.

Volume three is a bit of a departure from the first two. Things move from Habu's backstory and exciting climbing scenes to Fukamachi's present day search for Habu in Nepal to try to solve the mystery of Mallory's possible lost camera. Maybe it's just me, but for some reason, the camera mystery doesn't excite me much. Perhaps you have to be a mountaineering enthusiast to see the true value in that plot line, much like the in story value of the camera itself. Really though, the "camera plot line" is the "find Habu plot line", but somehow it feels like the story and Fukamachi can't decide which one is more important and because of that, things seem unfocused(no photography pun intended). A little more interesting, Ryoku Kishi, Habu's former lover and sister of his diseased protege, has joined Fukamachi in the search for Habu in order to reunite with him and get closure. I was more interested in the human drama this reunion entailed, but what I actually got felt a bit like an 80's crime movie. Kidnapping, extortion, car chases and a harrowing cliff side rescue followed. It felt a little odd and out of place, but it was exciting and probably the most purely entertaining part of this series. All of this led up to learning Habu's main goal, which is to do an oxygenless solo summit of Everest's south west face in Winter. Something never before done and what everyone else in the story thinks is insane and practically suicide. If this series' previous exciting climbing scenes are anything to go by, this summit attempt is more than enough reason to check out the last two upcoming volumes.

Jiro Taniguchi is a pretty great artist. Sometimes I feel like his character faces can be a little off and weird. Specifically the eyes when looking at a character head on. They can look, for the lack of a better word, a little creepy at times. Beyond that though, their faces are very expressive and dynamic. Taniguchi excels at the "thoughtful look", as I like to call it. Strong, furrowed brows and deep, expressive eyes. This is especially well done with Habu, who has the most varied appearance throughout the series because of so much time covered. The cover to volume three above basically personifies what I am talking about. Taniguchi also impressed me with his ability to draw "action" scenes. The mountain climbing scenes were very exciting and cinematic and one of the main draws of this series. Taniguchi also excelled at drawing stunning mountainscapes. I don't know if he used assistants to do them or if he did them digitally with a computer, and I don't care. All I know is that the mountain scenery(and the backgrounds in general) was really well done and painstakingly detailed.  One thing that I would like to see more of is the wonderfully done color pages present in the first volume, but absent in the next two. I oddly prefer black and white art, but a few color pages here and there can be a great treat. You can sample the art for yourself at Ponent Mon's website where you can preview all three volumes.

This series wasn't what I was hoping it would be or what I expected it to be with Taniguchi being connected to it. A bit dry and tedious sometimes, and slightly hampered by one, unlikeable main character, at other times, it is compelling and engaging, and bolstered by the more appealing co-main character. I'd say that the bad outweighs the good, and with Habu's incredible summit attempt to look forward to, I'll definitely be anticipating the last two volumes.

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