“Climber’s High”

Of all the disaster narratives that I studied for my article “Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?“, the one that I have studied in most detail is ‘Climber’s High’ (クライマーズ・ハイ) as it ties in so much with my research about the JL123 crash. As well as the novel – which is one of the only titles that I have as a printed copy (both hardback and paperback), eBook, and audiobook – I have the official English translation (again in all three versions), the DVDs of both the 2005 NHK TV dramatization and the 2008 movie version (Blu-ray version also), and the Original Sound Track CD for the 2008 movie. On top of this, I interviewed the author of the book, Hideo Yokoyama, in Takasaki, the translator of the English version, the producers of both dramatizations and the director of the 2008 version.

Me with Hideo Yokoyama in Takasaki in 2009

I have two main memories from that interview with Yokoyama. First is just how much he smokes. As soon as one cigarette was finished, another was started. By the end of the evening, I wasn’t even sure if it made more sense to throw away my clothes rather than try to get the smell of smoke out of them. The other was just how concerned Yokoyama was about the JL123 bereaved families’ views are about the book. In fact the conversation about that reminded me a lot about one of the scenes in ‘Climber’s High’ itself. If there was any doubt about Yokoyama’s motivations for writing the book, they were completely blown away for me that night (key aspects about other things he said also come through in the forward to the English version of the book and I have also included in my book and articles about the book).

The hardback and paperback versions have different covers…

The hardback version
The paperback version
My signed copy by Yokoyama

As I have discussed all three version (novel, TV & movie) in my book Dealing With Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash, the article “Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?“, and my post Narratives on the World’s Worst Plane Crash: Flight JL123 in Print and on Screen (note that this was written prior to the release of some narratives about the crash which are discussed in the IJMED article), I don’t plan to repeat myself in this post.

Here is what I wrote about the official English version in a review on Amazon

Back in 2007 I began conducting research about the Japan Air Lines flight 123 crash (JL123), the world’s largest single plane crash. At the time there were no books in English wholly about the crash (there are now two – ‘Dealing with Disaster in Japan’ and ‘Osutaka’). There were over 60 books in Japanese, however – a number which has continued to grow over the years. Most of these books are either questioning what really happened to the plane (unlike in most English texts and documentaries, many Japanese are not convinced by the findings of the official report) or are covering the experiences of the bereaved families. However, amongst the books were two novels; ‘Shizumanu Taiyō’ and ‘Kuraimāzu Hai’. The second of these is what has now been published in English under the title of ‘Seventeen’.
The book is a bit of a puzzle. As other reviewers have commented, referring to it as a thriller doesn’t really do the book justice. It’s not completely about a disaster. It’s not totally about the life of a journalist. If anything, it’s about humanity. But getting to grips with the full meaning of the book takes time – I’ve read the Japanese version many times, watched the two Japanese dramatizations numerous times, met and interviewed Hideo Yokoyama himself (and also some of those involved with the dramatizations), and have now read the English version, but the full implications of some of the words didn’t come to me straight away. That is not because there is a problem with the way the book is written. It’s just that it’s one of those books where you need time to let it get under your skin and you need to give time to thinking about what is written. Having said that, it is also an easy-page turner and it’s possible to enjoy the story for the sheer drama.
Although the Japanese title is based on the English word’s ‘Climber’s High’, the official translation has ended up as ‘Seventeen’. I assume this is a nod to the only other translation (‘Six Four’), as things stand, of one of Yokoyama’s books being numerical. The significance of the number seventeen is in the text and is further reinforced by Yokoyama’s own words in the introduction to the English version (which doesn’t appear in the Japanese version). Whilst not devoid of meaning, the English title does make it that much harder to find when searching for it – particularly if you make the mistake of looking for it as ‘17’ rather than ‘Seventeen’. The cover has also mirrored the style of the English version of ‘Six Four’, but I can’t help that feel a cover more in keeping the original Japanese version would have been preferable. But in the end, we should not judge a book by the cover – the contents are a masterpiece.
The translator has done an excellent job in faithfully keeping the feel of the original Japanese text. Japanese doesn’t always map well into English and so this can be a real challenge. That one of the key phrases in the original Japanese presents itself as a riddle and challenge for the protagonist to fully comprehend, coming up with something in English that can also remain a riddle and open to various interpretations must have been especially difficult. I particularly liked the translation of the ‘Sayama article’ and find it much more emotive than the one used in the English subtitles of the 2008 movie (and which also appear in the book Dealing with Disaster in Japan). It is a shame that publishers don’t allow translators to have a short chapter to discuss the challenges they had to deal with and a space to explain some of the translation choices they made.
I sincerely hope that we will see more translations of Yokoyama books in the years to come. He has a very engaging style of writing, with vivid descriptions, engaging dialogues and wonderfully crafted storylines. I hope too that we will see a translation one day of the other novel related to the JAL flight 123 crash, ‘Shizumanu Taiyō’. As for ‘Seventeen’, it is a fabulous read for, and should be a compulsory read for anyone who deals with journalism (either as a journalist or as a consumer) on a regular basis.


You can see another review of the translation and also the audiobook version in an article I wrote for the Japan Society.

For many years I have taught about the JL123 crash in one of my courses at Cardiff University. This has included using both text from ‘Climber’s High’ and either just watching the 2008 movie or both it and the 2005 version. There is much to like about both versions, but also things which could be improved with both. I hope, as often happens with Japanese movies, that another remake will appear one day (maybe for the 40th, 45th or 50th anniversary of the JL123 crash) and that it could be more complete.

The 2005 NHK version
The 2008 version

There is no doubt that the story has influenced me in a number of ways. As well as the story itself and how it has helped me with my academic studies, it has also helped challenge my thinking about a variety of issues – just as a good novel should do. It was also because of ‘Climber’s High’ that I have visited Doai station (see also this page) and Mount Tanigawa, one of the first times I did ‘contents tourism’.

In 2011 I went to meet Masato Harada and interview him. As well as being the director of the 2008 version of Climber’s High, he has also directed many other movies and appeared in movies as an actor (including ‘The Last Samurai’). As well as learning so much more about the movie and Harada, the visit to the area and Harada’s apartment also helped to inspire ideas for my Iwakura Series of novels. In the end, other aspects of ‘Climber’s High’ have also creeped into my novels, but I won’t say any more about that here (spoilers!).

Meeting Masato Harada in 2011

In terms of the revised list of conventions that I developed as part of my article  “Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?“ the NHK version has 11 out of the 17 and the movie version 12. Notably both versions had aided with not distancing the narrative in time by altering the current timeline to the year that the narrative was released (it had been 2002 in the novel, and then was 2005 and 2008 in the narratives). Naturally, a key influence of the narratives in terms of the revised conventions that I developed was that the concept of ‘pillars of truth‘ (that there has to be something to make the story believable and real) came from my interview with Yokoyama. Further, the way that the protagonist, Yuuki, keeps going helped crystalize my idea of the ‘suffering protagonist’. As neither narrative actually shows the plane crash, it is no surprise that the ‘panic’ convention was not found. A difference between the two versions is that the movie version kills off a key character (which didn’t happen in the original novel either).

Although I have already written about ‘Climber’s High’ in two of my academic publications (I wrote enough about key aspects of ‘Climber’s High’ in the article ‘Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?‘ that it’s not necessary to add extra information here in the way that I may do with future posts related to narratives studied for that article), and am currently writing another chapter for an edited book that will discuss it, there is still so much more I feel that I could say about the book and its dramatizations. Whether there will be an appropriate place or time for this, I don’t know. If not, perhaps I will do some more posts in due course.

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