Cineastes are quite familiar with the sight of Mount Fuji. For years, it was the symbol of the Shochiku studio, proceeding classic films by Masaki Kobayashi, Masahiro Shinoda, and Seijun Suzuki. Oddly enough, that one image of the Japanese summit Fiona Tan does not incorporate into her essay film, Ascent (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.
Consider this fair warning: Ascent is often likened to the work Chris Marker. Through voice-overs, two narrators explain the role Mount Fuji has played in their own lives, while giving viewers some socio-political-historical context. One is a native English speaker mourning the Japanese boyfriend who was her personal tutor in Japanese culture, both high and pop. The other is a Japanese man apparently in the throughs of an early mid-life crisis, who has set out to hike Mount Fuji. Judging from his voice-overs, this is not as arduous a feat as it might sound. In fact, there are plenty rest stops, tea houses, and dormitories catering to hikers all along the trail.
Frankly, the best parts of Ascent involve the telling of traditional tales, including the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (adapted by Studio Ghibli as the masterful Tale of Princess Kaguya) and the Rip Van Winkle-esque Dream of Akinosuke, from Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan. There is no Shochiku logo, but there is ample reference to Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, which is actually part of a series called Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. All this time, we have been focusing on the wrong thing. As cool as the wave is, Mount Fuji is clearly in the center where the subject should be.
There are some striking images of the iconic mountain (and some that are somewhat pedestrian). We do see a good amount of family photos with gap touched children posing in front of the landmark, but they are quite poignant in the context of the film. The problem is Tan never builds to any epiphanies or grand conclusions of any sort. Granted, if profundity were easy to achieve, everyone would do it. Nevertheless, the flatness of the conclusion is a letdown.