Movies about mountain climbing are usually epic tales of human survival, and The Summit: A Chronicle of Stones is another fine example of this genre. We live in an era when every peak of every mountain has been conquered, but it is not uncommon for even today’s mountain climbers to run into trouble during their expeditions, despite having available to them sophisticated equipment, greater understanding about the human body’s functioning at high altitudes, and knowledge passed on by previous generations of mountain climbers. So if you think it is tough these days, think about the mountaineers of the past who did not have any of those things and had to rely instead on instincts, determination and luck.
The Summit: A Chronicle of Stones tells of the story of 2 teams of mountaineers out to reach the peak of Mount Tsurugidake, ‘the only summit (in Japan) beyond the reach of men’, back in the 1900s. One was from the Army Geological Survey Unit, headed by Yoshitaro Shibasaki (Asano Tadanobu), which aimed to place triangulation stones to help create accurate maps of that region. The other team came from the Japan Alpine Club, headed by Usui Kojima (Nakamura Toru), an amateur mountain climbing club using mountaineering techniques from abroad. It soon became a competition to be the first to reach ‘The Summit’…
Watching The Summit: A Chronicle of Stones, I have a complaint. It is a positive one though (yes, a positive complaint, if there is ever such a thing), and this relates to my viewing of the film on DVD. OK, let me explain. The film was directed by veteran cinematographer Daisaku Kimura, and his past experience really shows here. The cinematography is truly breathtaking, so much so that if you randomly take a screen shot, chances are that it will be beautiful enough to be made into a postcard. So Kimura really deserves the Japanese Academy Award for Best Cinematography that he won. I was just disappointed that my television screen isn’t big enough to allow me to fully enjoy the film, but I guess no TV screen is big enough for something this grand. Hence my advice is: catch this on the big screen if you can.
Kimura also won the Best Director Award for this film, which is not bad at all for a directorial debut. He has certainly done a fine job, but the stellar cast have no doubt helped him a lot. Asano Tadanobu (Villon’s Wife – JFF 2010) and Nakamura Toru (Oppai Volleyball – JFF 2009) are both solid, while Teruyuki Kagawa (Dear Doctor – JFF 2010) is outstanding in his award-winning role as the humble mountain guide. The cast playing the members of the mountain climbing teams in particular deserve much respect for their fearless portrayal of this extremely difficult journey. The narrative is at times a bit slow (which will be frustrating for some viewers), but this does add to one’s appreciation of the magnitude of the challenges faced by the film’s characters.
In the end, this story of mountaineers of the past risking their lives and trying to survive the most extreme weather conditions to achieve their goals is both touching and humbling. The audience is treated to a wonderful and stunning journey to a place most of us would never get to go to. There is a message from the film that I find particularly meaningful, which is ‘nature is eternal but life is fleeting.’ So let us cherish every moment of the journey and be not afraid to fulfil our dreams, just like the mountain-climbing teams in The Summit: A Chronicle of Stones.
Just a few words about the Japanese Film Festival: Of the five films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Japanese Academy Award, four will be showcased at the upcoming Japanese Film Festival in Australia, and The Summit: A Chronicle of Stones is one of them. There are also heaps of others to choose from in a particularly strong line-up of films at this year’s festival. And to help you decide what to see, we will endeavour to bring you many more reviews of films from JFF 2010 in the coming weeks!