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Documentary Review: Life is Climbing (2023) by Sokichi Nakahara
Documentary Review: Life is Climbing (2023) by Sokichi Nakahara

Documentary Review: Life is Climbing (2023) by Sokichi Nakahara

‘Silence is screening “I’m here!”’

When losing a sense, it is often the case that something else is heightened. But in Sokichi Nakahara’s exploration of blind climber Koichiro ‘Koba’ Kobayashi, it is not a greater sense of hearing or smell that Kobayashi gains, but a greater connection to another person.

Walking along the streets with the aid of a stick, Koba struggles as he goes, accidentally walking on to a bus and missing the front door of his destination. Surprisingly, his outing is a trip to a climbing gym, where a young girl talks him through the climbing wall, giving him instructions as he tackles it. But, Koba is no ordinary man: he is a world champion para-climber, working with his eyes on the ground, Naoya Suzuki.

Naoya has quite literally guided Koba through his career, travelling the world, picking up numerous gold medals. Now, having trained in the Midwest US, Naoya wants to give Koba a new challenge, taking him off the relative safety of competition climbing walls, to the red, dusty cliff faces of Utah, conquering his favourite climbing spot.

One thing that is notable throughout is the simple casualness of the relationship between the pair. Not so much that they can say whatever they like in front of each other, more that they already know what the other is thinking. They are a single unit; the perfect compliment to each other. Naoya is Koba’s eyes, able to push Koba, knowing his limits and that he has his complete trust. Koba will follow him, quite literally, to the ends of the Earth.

Koba, likewise, entrusts Naoya with his life and follows his every word, openly admitting that the feeling of giving himself wholly over to Naoya in these moments is a liberating feeling. It is, therefore, a portrait of the relationship between the two, their closeness and love for one another. While other teams use microphones and headsets for communication, Naoya runs chaotically around the floor shouting instructions through a cone. Theirs is a unique charm.

This is very natural, though the use of the ambient soundtrack over discussions sometimes tries to force the sentiment a little. Luckily this is not too often the case. Where this documentary succeeds is in its lack of soundtrack. Climbing the cliffs, a seemingly isolated Koba has only his heavy breathing for company. Struggling to connect his rope, the lonely breaths confirm the exhausting nature of what he is doing, all with the added stress of not being able to see a thing.

This creates intense moments, culminating in a finale to leave your palms sweaty – I was nearly soaked through as I gazed; the thought of heights making me nervous. The meta inclusion of cameras capturing the moment from every angle creates some spectacular moments as Naoya, the proud father, guides Koba, yet allows him to find his own feet.

The beauty of “Life is Climbing” is its simplicity, and its two protagonists: both uncomplicated men who want nothing more than to share climbing together. One eager to lead; the other more than happy to follow, whatever challenge they may face.