There is a manga around practically any genre you can think of, from tennis to reverse harems. Mountaineering manga may not be the most globally recognisable form of the art, but it exists, and there is a certain sense of comfort in that. Based on the manag “Gaku: Minna no Yama” by Shinichi Ishizuka, running in serial form since 2003, Peak: The Rescuers (岳-ガク-) brings the manga into the real world by exploiting the magnificent backdrop of Japan’s stunning mountain ranges.
Kumi Shiina (Masami Nagasawa, From Up on Poppy Hill) follows in her father’s footsteps to become the latest in a long line of volunteer rescue workers. After a series of setbacks and failed rescue missions, Kumi starts to lose her confidence and her reason for being there. However, under the tutelage of leader Masato Noda (Kuranosuke Sasaki, The Lady Shogun and Her Men) and fellow rescue volunteer/mountain fanatic Sanpo Shimazaki (Shun Oguri, Bayside Shakedown 3: Set the Guys Loose), she learns to respect the mountain.
There is a moment early in the film where Peak: The Rescuers could be mistaken for a parody of Cliffhanger or any other mountaineering movie of the last few decades. However, it soon becomes rapidly obvious that this is not the case, and instead director Osamu Katayama (Heat Island) has borrowed from every cliche in the playbook. From the reluctant apprentice to the heroic poses, there is no mistaking the trajectory of this avalanche and for the most part this is fine. However, in Kumi, we have a wholly unlikeable lead, who does nothing but complain for the first three quarters of the film. It’s actually tough to work out why she volunteered to be a mountain rescue worker, as she doesn’t seem to like mountains, be terribly good at climbing and has a universal disdain for practically anybody who gets themselves into minor strife. This is all a simple conceit designed to give her character an arc, and an obstacle to overcome. Otherwise we’d be watching two hours of people who really enjoy being good at climbing.
The cinematography is stunning, and the crisp winter wonderland of Japan’s Northern Alps is beautiful to behold. The fanatic Shun Oguri’s character is there to regular point this out, but it goes without saying. Were it not for the characters, this might be one of the best bits of footage we have seen of the ranges in recent years. Yet when the disaster inevitably hits (its a blizzard in this case and a once-in-a-blue-moon storm that was telegraphed earlier), Kumi has to get her act together and start appreciating everything the landscape has to offer and learn the value of Christmas (or something). It’s a fairly straightforward affair, and were it not for the wonderful backdrop, it’s the kind of tale that could have just as easily been told about a woman who was resentful, but eventually respectful, of the deep fryer at McDonalds.
Peak: The Rescuers is playing at the Japanese Film Festival on 24 November (Sydney) and 3 December (Melbourne) 2011 at the 15th Japanese Film Festival in Australia.