This film is about a team of explorers climbing Tsurugidake (aka. the Needle Mountain) in 1907. This was the last unclimbed mountain left in Japan and thus something of a cartographical embarrassment. The Japanese army want it climbed and surveyed, so they order our hero Shibasaki (Tadanobu Asano) to go up it and set a complete set of Class 3 Triangulation Stones. They neither know nor care whether or not they're sending him on a suicide mission. Oh, and one more thing. Apparently there's a team of amateur mountaineers with access to Western techniques and equipment who also mean to conquer Tsurugidake. Naturally for them to beat the army's men to the top would be shameful, so Shibasaki is also ordered to get up there first.
If you're thinking the Japanese army seem to have their heads up their arses, you'd be right. They're excuses for human beings and the film makes them look practically evil, although there's a junior officer who's okay. If you've ever wanted to hate some soldiers, here's your chance.
The first thing to say about this film is that it looks astonishing. The early scenes aren't anything startling, being nice but basically what you'd expect from a painstaking period reconstruction of this bit of the Meiji era. What's most interesting from a Western viewpoint is the clash of cultures. At times you'd think you were watching an Agatha Christie adaptation, with Shibasaki being dressed like an Edwardian gentlemen. He's wearing the right hat and everything.. However his home life is traditionally Japanese and his mountain guide looks as if he's stepped out of the Edo period. He's got the cartwheel straw hat and everything. When Shibasaki goes to visit another mountaineer to ask for advice, the other chap is indulging in a spot of archery!
All that stuff's nice and (for Westerners) educational, but where the film will make your jaw drop is with its mountainscapes. To make this film, they really climbed Tsurugidake. Imagine climbing the scariest, most inaccessible peak in a country that's mostly mountains. Imagine the sights you'd see. Now imagine that you're a veteran cinematographer of more than 35 years' experience, Daisaku Kimura, directing your first movie and determined to make it a visual experience like no other. That's this film. I'll get back to the plot in a moment, but some serious respect is due to the cinematography. Fittingly they've also put classical music on the soundtrack, by the way. Lots of strings. I liked that too.
Okay, back to the characters. Shibasaki is a "stiff upper lip" kind of chap, sitting immobile as the army orders him to do the impossible. You couldn't call him a cuddly protagonist, but you at least have to respect him. It's also noteworthy that he has a traditional Japanese wife (Aoi Miyazaki, best known for her innocent image) who's playing the domestic doormat role that was expected of a wife back then and yet is also happy and in love with her husband. They're recent newlyweds. Mum thought Miyazaki's character was too idealised, but I liked it. To me it seemed to be saying that people will always be people, even in a culture as alien to our modern sensibilities as the one we're talking about. However that said, she's also not very important. This is basically a "men up a mountain" film, in which everyone's trying to be strong, brave and honourable. It's a fairly narrow palette of characterisation, but more than sufficient for the story being told. I liked them all. They're good people.
There's one exception to this rule, though, and that's Shibasaki's village guide, played by Teruyuki Kagawa. He's clearly the most watchable character in the film and always a lot of fun. He's this humble yet irrepressible chap whose raison d'etre is to help madmen climb mountains. That's what he lives for and he loves doing it. He'll have a big smile on his face even as he carries a pack the size of an elephant or casually mentions walking 24 kilometres as if it's the same as popping across the road to the shops. I loved his delight on, say, finding a big mushroom.
The plot is mostly what you think it's going to be, but it takes its time about getting there. It's based on a novel and it's got more than two hours to fill. There are one or two twists, of course. The rival mountaineers (the Japan Alpine Club) aren't quite what I'd expected them to be, while there are a few twiddly bits with the army and Buddhist monks. I thought it got a little slow for a spell during the second half, with our heroes facing doubts about what they're doing and other such understandable but slightly dull things. I like these characters, but I wouldn't call them deep enough to stay interesting even when waffling about with doubt and introspection. However the story picks up again once we're into the final stretch and everyone's focused again on the finish line. The ending I'd call strong. It's a powerful finale that pays homage to what we could fairly call heroism. I went away wanting to read up on the history of the time to see if the film was based on fact, which I'd really like it to have been.
The English title is a misnomer, by the way, since "-dake" means "mountain" and so it should simply be Mount Tsurugi.
This is a simple story told honestly and wholeheartedly. You'll need a bit of patience here and there to make it though, but it ends memorably and I imagine you'll be glad you watched it. It's also got truly incredible cinematography from up what's still known as "the most dangerous mountain" climbable. Mum loved the film, for what it's worth.