From the stack: The Summit of the Gods vol. 2

The second volume of The Summit of the Gods (Fanfare/Ponent Mon), written by Yumemakura Baku and illustrated by Jiro Taniguchi, delves deeply into both the psychology and behavior of its characters, though one particular aspect of their psychology and the behavior it inspires remains utterly baffling to me. I can think of few things I’d rather do less than dangle from an icy mountain by a rope. Since that’s almost all these characters think about, one might anticipate some remoteness on my part as a reader.

This reaction is averted by the sheer density of the work – the madly detailed illustrations, the tense technicalities of climbing, and the oblique revelation of small aspects of the characters. I say small aspects because Baku and Taniguchi make virtually no attempt to answer the big question of how people can dedicate their lives to an activity that’s almost entirely perilous, no matter how prepared you may be.

There’s a lot of dialogue, but there’s very little in the way of speech-making. Nobody really gazes off into the middle distance and talks about the nobility of the climb or anything of that sort. That, to my way of thinking, would have been insufferable, not to mention unpersuasive. The point-of-view character, Fukamachi, has specific interests instead of theses to prove. His attempts to understand things that have happened are different than grasping at reasons or creating context.

Most of the time in this volume is spent with Fukamachi talking to people who know legendary, troubled climber Habu. He learns of an ill-fated climb in Europe and another in Tibet. He digs into the life story of one of Habu’s rivals, finding new ways that their respective careers intersected and ran parallel. Fukamachi has an ultimate goal and mysteries to solve, but he has no specific urgency in his efforts. He’s hearing too many interesting stories to want to bring the process to a speedy conclusion.

The same can be said of the book itself. It doesn’t really have an overwhelming momentum to it, though individual sequences are often very exciting. There’s a level of remove, an analytical quality even to the nail-biting moments that suggests the perspective of a detached (but not entirely unmoved) observer. It’s a very intellectual, meticulous approach to very visceral material, and a big part of the appeal of the series is that counterpoint.

Another part is Taniguchi’s undeniably beautiful illustrations. He exhibits great restraint and fidelity in the way he renders people, keeping them on the unglamorous side. They look average, if robust, instead of heroic, which raises the stakes when they risk their lives. And his breathtaking vistas are a marvelous substitute for seeing these peaks in person.

I’m not really sure where The Summit of the Gods fits in the seinen universe, with its cerebral muscularity. With the possible exception of Hiroshi Hirata’s Satsuma Gishiden (Dark Horse), it’s unlike just about anything else I’ve read, even from Taniguchi. It’s just a tremendously confident work, and it’s rare to feel that quality come through so clearly, yet so modestly at the same time.

Here’s my review of the first volume.