I’ve been waiting for Super Cub to take me somewhere deep, somewhere transcendent, and in episode five it finally did. I knew it could, hoped it would, and am uplifted now that it has. “Reiko’s Summer” takes us into the wilderness and up the mountain, and in doing so, points the way to a whole new perspective on the metaphorical mountains we all face as we journey through life.
While Koguma has been zipping around on her Cub during summer break as a courier for the school, we learn in this episode that Reiko has been working with a crew based out of the Subashiri trail’s Station 5 on Mt. Fuji. She helps load and unload supplies, checks that everything tallies, and most importantly, rides the trail on her modified Cub to confirm that conditions are fair before the caterpillar vehicle sets off for the summit each day.
But mostly, she wipes out.
Over and over and over again. She takes spill after spill: over the handlebars, off to the left and then to the right, flipping off the back, landing hard on her back, on her face, on her side, and skidding about every which way. She gets really good at clearing the bike and tucking into a roll to minimize injuries. As the weeks tick by, Reiko’s initial enthusiasm to take on the mountain crumbles into frustration. She forgets how to smile and takes up cursing like it’s going out of style.
All this while, her boss has been eyeing her—the mud coating her coveralls, the cracks and duct tape repairs materializing on her Cub—and holding his peace. But one day after a particularly brutal wipeout, he approaches Reiko and offers a word of advice: “You can’t stand yourself up to the mountain. You have to bring yourself alongside it.” Huh? Which is Reiko’s reaction too. But it must mean something, because Boss Man is an experienced mountaineer and has even crested Mt. Everest. Plus he’s the strong silent type. It’s enough to get Reiko thinking at least and, in pondering her string of failures, prompts her to realize that she’d taken more hits than just those offered by the ground as it hurtled towards her day after day. She’d lost her joy. And she’d forgotten her dream.
Because you see, Reiko’s daily forays up the mountain were not just a job for her; in fact, they weren’t even part of the job description. Instead, they were her reason for wanting to spend the summer camping out halfway up Mt, Fuji in the first place. “I want to climb Mt, Fuji on my motorbike,” she wrote on her employment application form, and on the strength of that statement and her firm reiteration of it during her interview, her boss decided to assign Reiko with the trail checks. But in the torrent of failures, beaten and broken (both herself and her Cub), Reiko lost sight of this dream. And she realizes it. “Why, when I was doing something this fun,” she wonders, “did it feel like I was being made to suffer by some despicable enemy?”
Reiko doesn’t have an answer to this question, but the truth is that she does have just such an enemy. We all do. And I daresay this is what makes the mountain wildernesses of our own lives often feel so very bleak and overwhelming.
I once did a study of wildernesses in scripture and was really surprised at what I found. To me, those seasons of facing down a mountain, struggling in the wilderness had always felt like a punishment—a consequence of my own failures, my sin, or at best, a test that was designed to show me up for the weak-willed person I was, but at least having the eventual positive effect of driving me in desperation to God for rescue.
But that’s not the picture of the mountainous wilderness that I found in the Bible. Instead, I discovered exactly what Reiko does in her battle with Mt. Fuji. Two things, in fact. The first being that the mountain isn’t a punishment; it’s a place of meeting.
For Reiko, her boss’s advice to come alongside the mountain rather than standing against it makes her realize she was fighting the wrong battle, or at least fighting it the wrong way. Instead of setting herself against the trail and then “going limp” when it bested her, Reiko understands that she needs to “hold herself down” and fight as hard as she can, in a kind of partnership with it. This reminds me of the Hebrew definition of the verb “to wait”, as in, to wait on the Lord: It isn’t a limp, listless waiting, just passing the time, but rather a state of battle-readiness and determination, like a woman in labor who “waits” for her child to be born. She’s not just lying there twiddling her thumbs. When Reiko puts this kind of focused, active “going alongside” into practice instead of just flinging herself up the incline recklessly and trying to ride it out, she is able to delight again in the challenge, and do things she had not managed before, like pushing her Cub back down when it pops a wheelie rather than letting it lose control and toss her. She discovers new depths of resolve and ability in herself.
And so the mountain becomes a place of meeting, of encountering herself and who she really is. “I just want to know,” she had told her boss while at her lowest point, “if I’m the kind of person who can overcome something like that.” In the end, she isn’t. Reiko has a spectacular crash within sight of Station 10 at the summit and never makes it to the top. But on a deeper level, Reiko has indeed overcome the mountain by becoming someone who can hold onto her joy in the midst of the struggle and get up and try again. By the end of her summer on Mt. Fuji, Reiko is content with herself and the person she is. And she knows who she is still becoming—she knows that she will make it to the top one day. Reiko learns to extend grace to herself and act out that, rather than out of antagonism, frustration, or pig-headed stubbornness.
In scripture, the mountain wilderness is also a place of meeting, but not just with ourselves. With God himself. The struggle of the mountain is an invitation to encounter him, usually in a new, unexpected way. It happens to Moses many times, and with Aaron and a select group of elders in Exodus 24; and it happens to Elijah in the midst of his despair and exhaustion in 1 Kings 19. Over and over again, God leads his people into the wilderness, and often up that difficult mountain trail, in order to meet with them and reveal his heart to them. To go deep with them. We see it in Hosea 2:14, when God speaks about bringing the recalcitrant, unfaithful Israel (here likened to an adulterous wife) into the wilderness in order to “speak tenderly to her,” away from the noise and distraction of her many lovers (false gods). We see it in Isaiah 40:3-5 and 62:10-11, where the wilderness is actually the place where we partner with God to build the highway that carries him to his people in a beautiful journey of restoration, redemption and reward. We see it when, after Jesus’s baptism, the Holy Spirit leads him out into the wilderness where he is not just tempted, but also confirmed in his identity, mission, and authority—that is, in his relationship with his Father. And we also see it in Exodus as Israel travels around and around that mountain for forty years, dodging God at nearly every turn and shying away from relationship with him, telling Moses to go in their stead while they sit in the base camp and whine about dinner. Because the wilderness doesn’t always bring revelation, even though it is intended to. We can resist the advice of those who would speak wisdom into our lives, like Boss Man for Reiko, and choose instead to keep seeing it all as a punishment and fight against the one we think has set us up for such discomfort.
And here’s where the second thing comes in—the other revelation about the mountain in this episode: it may seem like you’re utterly alone in your battle with the mountain, but you aren’t. There’s community to be found in the wilderness. This becomes clear as Reiko makes what proves to be her final attempt—but also by far her most successful one. On her way up, she has a couple of flashbacks, the first one being to Boss Man and his advice. He represents the wisdom and experience of the older generation, the ones who have gone before. He also represents for Reiko the men of the first generation of Cub riders, whose stories of summitting Fuji-san in the 1960s sparked her dream to do the same. Reiko inherits wisdom and inspiration from this older generation of mountaineers.
As she powers toward Station 10, Reiko also remembers Koguma, how their Cubs brought them together, and in particular, her statement to the reserved girl that Koguma could go anywhere she wanted to, now that she had a Cub. In fact, much of what drives Reiko back up the mountain one more time is her desire to live up to her word to her new friend. What a radical example Reiko is! She does not backpedal and play it safe, sticking to the smooth paved roads of the plains, marked out with signs and painted lines to guard against peril. Surely that would do to “prove” that life with a Cub was one of freedom. But that’s not enough for Reiko. Instead, she tackles the toughest route in the nation, confronting impossible mountainous terrain—yes, for the sake of her own dream, but also to inspire the next generation of Cub rider, Koguma, and leave a legacy for the girl to tap into for herself one day, just as the first gen-ers did for Reiko.
Later, when Reiko shares with Koguma how she spent her holiday, her meek friend declares the whole undertaking to have been “silly.” Reiko just laughs in self-effacement (she really is best girl!). But clearly the story stays with Koguma, and that night she begins to wonder whether it might not in fact be possible. In episode six, Koguma finds herself having to plot a journey that could take her through Mt. Fuji territory, but she cautiously decides to take a longer route to avoid the difficult terrain. Yet, as she covers more and more ground on her journey, growing in confidence and making better progress than expected, Koguma decides to take what is now a detour up to Station 6 of the mountain. It’s a tough go, and she spends a lot of it in first gear, but she makes it. And while gazing out at the view, she understands what Reiko was up to. A transformation begins to take place in Koguma; she smiles more and even laughs (a first)—several times!—later in the episode. This “shared” mountain struggle brings the two girls closer together. In episode seven, Koguma even takes the lead in volunteering herself, Reiko and their Cubs to solve a logistical problem for the class’s cultural festival committee—surprising even herself. She is becoming more confident, more connected, and more engaged with the world around her. Slowly, the Super Cub and Reiko are changing Koguma’s reality. And the mountain has a lot to do with it.
We too are not alone on our wild mountainsides. Like Reiko, we have an older generation alongside us, a “cloud of witnesses” whose testimonies of overcoming are powerful (Hebrews 12:1, Revelation 12:11). We draw on their wisdom, and the wisdom of God himself in his word. And we fight not just for ourselves and our own dreams, but for the next generation too. As we mature in our walk with God, we become the older generation for others who are newer to the faith, younger in their experience of relationship with God in the midst of the wilderness. Suddenly, in what we thought was our greatest place of isolation, we find ourselves surrounded by community. The journey of the mountain wilderness is a multi-generational experience. This is why, more often than not, it was actually the entire nation of Israel that was together in the wilderness, or individuals on behalf of the nation, as with John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jesus himself. There is no such thing as complete isolation in the wilderness in scripture. And so just as it does in Isaiah, our partnership with God in our own personal wildernesses actually benefits the people of God collectively—and just maybe, all of humanity. It’s part of building that highway in the desert that joins us all together with our savior.
So let’s be like Reiko and take on the metaphorical mountains in our lives with joy alongside the determination, and expectation along with the perseverance. Let’s not pit ourselves against the wilderness seasons, but come alongside them, expecting to meet God in them and seeing them as invitations to encounter him in a new way. He is El Roi—the one who sees us in the wilderness, as with Hagar in Genesis 16:13. Whether it be purposefully (like Reiko) or unknowingly (like Israel often), either way, we do not go into the wilderness alone. We go carrying with us those who’ve gone before us and those who will come after. But most of all, we journey with our own beloved Cub, God himself, who carries us in the mountain wilderness as it becomes a place no longer of punishment and isolation, but of meeting and community.
Super Cub can be streamed on Funimation.