Splendor can’t be diminished by context or weakened by one’s overexposure to it. That’s one of the principal lessons of Fiona Tan’s Ascent, a docufiction photomontage film that meditates on Japan’s magisterial Mount Fuji via its representation in photographic material captured over the course of the last century. Tan’s comprehensive project discriminates against no particular era or pedigree of imagery, meaning that the depictions of Mount Fuji on display run the textural gamut from exquisitely staged shots on early color-tinted celluloid to pixelated, drive-by cellphone snaps and everything in between. The mountain’s singular presence—astonishing, enchanting, intimidating—remains the one constant throughout, emanating in even the lowest-grade photos a peculiar autonomy, a tendency to float apart from the surrounding image as though possessed of its own life force.
Once a subject mostly for consummate visual artists and now more often an irresistible focal point for shutter-happy tourists and the Outdoor Photographer set, Mount Fuji is a site of unique historical and cultural baggage that Tan mines in a number of bold ways. The primary vessel for her inquiries is a pair of narrators—one an English woman voiced by Tan herself, the other a Japanese man (Hiroki Hasegawa)—who weave in and out of the soundtrack to provide not only art-historical and geographical context around the natural landmark, but also the fragmentary narrative of a woman sifting through the remains of a lover who met his demise climbing the mountain. The narrations are staggered back and forth to imply a relay of diary entries, albeit one separated by time, space, and the clouds that shroud Mount Fuji.
This seeming narrative anchor, though, is complicated by Tan’s radical decision to mix the voices so low as to nearly be indecipherable, an effect that alludes to the shrunken stature of humanity against the smothering vastness of Mount Fuji. Further diminishing these voiceovers is the film’s enveloping sound design, which approximates the landscape’s ceaseless gusty din by blending field recordings with ambient soundscapes. If Tan’s intention here is to encourage a heightened attentiveness if only to repeatedly frustrate our attempts to find sympathetic entry points, it’s a strategy shrewdly aligned with the longstanding human relationship to the mountain, which has historically played host to deadly climbs and generations of aghast sightseers who keep their distance. As Tan evocatively demonstrates in one sequence depicting Japan’s nationwide celebration of the expiration of the cherry blossom life cycle, the nation’s philosophical disposition is rooted in an acceptance of impermanence, with Mount Fuji as one awe-inspiring exception.
Working closely with editor Nathalie Alonso Casale, Tan forges a montage of stills that captures this imposing calm amidst surrounding movement and change. With Mount Fuji never out of sight, Ascent excavates the photographic remnants of trains passing through the landscape, Tokyo lights sparkling on and off, and sunflowers exploding and shriveling. During one sequence, Hasegawa describes the mountain as being “beyond the reach of time,” and the images, unmoored from linear chronology, drift into one another in viscous dissolves. In each, Mount Fuji is carefully positioned in the same part of the frame to suggest its enduring centrality, both for photographers and for those living under its shadow. Such subtle manipulations of essentially static source material elevate what may have been a dry educational video in less savvy hands to something moving, cryptic, and incantatory.