Saturday, June 27, 2009

NYAFF ’09: Climber’s High

In 1985, the North Kanto News was a decent paper for reporters to learn their trade, but those with talent never stayed long. However, when JAL Flight 123 crashed in their prefecture, a national tragedy became the paper’s greatest challenge. For Yuuki Kazumasa, the mountain-climbing reporter quarterbacking the paper’s crash coverage, it would be an especially trying time, both professionally and personally, in Masato Harada’s Climber’s High (trailer here), now screening as part of the New York Asian Film Festival.

After a brief moment of national glory covering the United Red Army terrorists in the 1970’s, the Gunma regional paper is now only distinguished by a potentially explosive sexual harassment suit filed against the owner-publisher. Many assume the old man appointed Kazumasa to head the JAL desk because of malicious rumors involving the reporter’s mother, allegedly a woman of dubious repute. However, nobody at the paper better understands the mountainous terrain of the remote crash-site than Kazumasa, except perhaps his mountaineering friend Anzai. Unfortunately, the overworked circulation clerk slipped into a coma following a freak aneurism, adding to Kazumasa’s worries.

Climber takes the audience into the hothouse environment of the newsroom, where the editorial staff is not necessarily working together to the same ends. Like typical journalists, they have decided biases (like the publisher who refuses to show the Japanese security forces in a positive light), and remain largely oblivious to the devastating grief of the victims’ loved ones. However, Kazumasa comes to understand how important his paper’s coverage is to the bereaved families after a quietly devastating encounter with a new widow and her young son. You have to appreciate a journalist who can tell a colleague: “520 people did not die so you could preach.”

There is an atmosphere of sadness that hangs over Climber, even beyond the catastrophic circumstances of the crash. Kazumasa is a sorrowful figure himself, a slave to his heartless newspaper, but nearly a complete stranger to his own son. Throughout the film, the metaphor of mountain-climbing as a fresh start is certainly never subtle and the contemporary scenes of Yuuki’s redemptive climb of the Partition border on melodrama.

Still, aside from a few heavy-handed father-and-son scenes, Harada’s direction is quite sure-footed. He immerses the audience in the North Kanto’s world, where sexism runs rampant, professional jealousy is common place, and cynicism is the air they breathe. Climber’s ensemble cast all look appropriately tired and jaded, both physically and spiritually. In particular, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi is the personification of world-weariness as Kazumasa, while convincingly hinting at the roiling storm submerged beneath his placid exterior.

Though based on a novel by Hideo Yokoyama, Climber echoes many of the lingering doubts regarding the cause of one of the worst air disasters in Japanese history. Climber’s gritty depiction of the provincial paper ranks as one of the most realistic, least sentimentalized portrayals of professional journalism seen anywhere on-screen in recent years. Yet ultimately, it is a love letter to the zen-like qualities of mountaineering, rather than journalism. It screens June 30th and July 2nd at the Japan Society, as part of a co-presentation with the NYAFF.