This took over a year longer to arrive than I expected, but it doesn’t matter! The final volume of this series has made it to print after the long delay had me fearing that we’d never find out how this series ends. It picks up shortly after the bit of (what I found to be) unintentional humor that wrapped up the previous volume as mountaineers Habu and Fukumachi go their respective ways. The former on a treacherous climb up Everest via a route no one has tackled before, and the latter back down to base camp. Even though Fukumachi makes it back down alive -- and to a certain amount of fame thanks to the international furor surrounding Habu’s exploits -- his encounter with the man has stirred a passion in him that won’t be calmed until he tackles the tallest mountain in the world himself.
Fukumachi may have started off this series as little more than a glorified point-of-view character for the audience, yet he’s finally able to transcend that in this final volume. Yes, he does spend a good portion of the first third of the volume doing just that as he photographs Habu’s climb up Everest. The thing is that his pursuit of the reclusive mountaineer has also spurred Fukumachi on to physical accomplishments that he would never have thought himself capable of when this story began. He’s also rewarded for his efforts with a killer story.
That’s not enough as he feels compelled to do an oxygenless climb of Everest to properly honor Habu’s and the impact the man has had on his life. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that Fukumachi is also rewarded for his efforts here with the resolution of a couple lingering mysteries. It’s explicitly stated at a couple points in this volume (and again on the back cover) that unmitigated belief in what you’re doing will see you through the toughest challenges in your life. That’s what I think writer Yumemakura Baku wants the reader to take away from this series. It’s a familiar sentiment, which is why I find it easier to appreciate the risk/reward message from Fukumachi’s efforts. Transcend your limits, and you will be rewarded. Maybe not with fame and the answer to a nearly hundred-year-old mystery, but your efforts will not have been in vain.
As for Habu, his fate feels entirely appropriate here. Having the character succeed in his climb and make it back down the mountain for professional validation and worldwide fame was never going to happen. This isn’t that kind of story. Plus, everything we’ve seen of the character before now suggests that these things would’ve only made him more miserable. Baku shoots to give the character nothing more than personal validation for his efforts. Habu knows what he has accomplished and, in the end, no one is able to take that away from him. For a character as ill-tempered and idiosyncratic as this one, and who has followed such an unconventional path to get to this point, what he ends up with and where are true to his person.
This being the last volume of the series, I’d be remiss to not talk about Jiro Taniguchi’s astonishing art one last time. No one captures the beauty and harshness of the outdoors as well as this artist. While Haubu and Fukumachi are up on Everest, you see the oppressive effects of the environment on their characters, both physically and mentally. From the frostbite on their faces to the bone-weariness in their actions after a certain point, these details help draw you in. There’s also a real sense of danger that accompanies the climbers on their journeys as the bad weather, falling rocks, and treacherous environment are all rendered with impeccable skill. The visuals are so breathtaking here that you’re left hoping Taniguchi attempts a solo climb with his own Everest-related manga at some point.
That’s because the flaws that have been a part of this series since the beginning are still present here to a certain extent. As good as Taniguchi’s art is, Baku still feels the need to over-narrate everything. By the time this volume is over, you will know how Fukumachi felt at any given moment during the course of its events. I’ll admit that sometimes the writer’s quirk is useful in supplying necessary background material to help appreciate the climbing and in providing the occasional moment of grace. Yet you’re left wishing that he had dialed things back a bit and not felt utterly compelled to spell out everything on the minds of his protagonists in text. Of course, if you’ve read this far in the series then there’s also a pretty good chance that you’ve acclimated to this particular quirk of Baku’s by now.
There are a also a couple instances where the writer falls back on cheap drama -- ghostly hallucinations, lost food -- to generate tension. It’s disappointing because the series has shown that it’s better than that. Also, while the esoteric nature of Habu’s fate works, I would’ve appreciated something more concrete with Fukumachi in the final chapter. The broad strokes of the conclusion of his journey are clear, even though he’s pushed aside to make room for some people who haven’t had a physical presence in the story until now.
Maybe not the mountain climbing manga to end all others (it’s one genre that Shonen Jump has yet to try [to my knowledge, anyway]), this has still been an engrossing read from start to finish. Much like its uncompromising protagonist Habu, “The Summit of the Gods” is also a series that offers no real concessions to the popular traits of mainstream manga. There are no energetic teen protagonists, cute girls, idols, superpowers, or epic fight scenes. It’s all about rugged, even damaged middle-aged men pitting themselves against the environment to see what they’re made of. That has probably doomed this series to obscurity in the U.S. However, if you’re willing to buckle down and engage with it on its own terms, like Fukumachi did with Habu, then I think you’ll find the entertainment this series provides to be a suitable reward.