Mount Fuji is one of Japan’s most instantly recognisable icons, up there with the spring cherry blossoms. The country’s highest peak is a site of tremendous cultural and religious significance to the Japanese.
Fuji, or Fuji-san, has inspired legendary art like Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (published around 1830 and so popular, he produced another ten). In more recent times, it’s been used as a backdrop to sell everything from tourism to movies (it’s where King Kong tussled with Godzilla).
For a fresh perspective on Mount Fuji, the visual artist Fiona Tan takes some of that imagery and wrestles with in Ascent, which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival last weekend. Her photo film is entirely made of still photography featuring Mount Fuji as bit player or star turn.
Tan was working with the Izu Photo Museum, located in the foothills of Mt. Fuji, when she struck on the idea. “I like mountain climbing and I usually take my camera with me because it’s beautiful [on the mountain]. But you can’t grab it in a photograph, the feeling you have when you’re up the mountain. Photos are always lacking something, yet at the same time you get a sense of something amazing.”
In the film, Tan uses a fictitious narrative as guide: a correspondence between two lovers, an English artist and a Japanese climber. He’s on the mountain; she’s far away. As they talk, the visual perspectives of Mt. Fuji change, with classic pictures of the snow-capped mountain snapped from bullet train or safe distance (though Mt.Fuji last erupted in 1707, it’s still classified an active volcano).
She also documents what it’s actually like on the mountain, with climbers’ photographs that depict the more brutal reality of its ash covered routes or the less-than-meditative waiting in line that goes hand in hand with tackling Mt. Fuji in peak season (most of the 300,000 or so people who climb Fuji do so in the same recommended summer months, so it’s pretty hectic up there).
Tan didn’t go up the mountain herself for the film. “I wanted to climb the mountain from a distance,” says the artist, who represented the Netherlands at the 2009 Vienna Biennale. “I think a lot about proximity. To look at things, you need distance. With a mountain like that, the less you see.”
In Ascent, the mind travels far and wide, along many different pathways to discovery. The intersections between Japanese and Western art are explored; talk turns to Van Gogh, a huge collector of Japanese woodcuts popularised by Hokusai.
Popular culture’s reimagining of this sacred space is touched upon too. Fuji remains an important place of pilgrimage; several shrines were built there to appease the kami – the spirits worshipped in the religion of Shinto – of the mountain.
Death is never far from the conversation around Mount Fuji either. The peak has inspired death in fiction before, with Aokigahara (the forest at the north west base of the mountain) being the setting for lovers’ suicide in Seicho Matsumoto’s 1960 novel Tower of Waves. The dense woodland, also called ‘sea of trees’, has long been associated with spirits. In real life too, it’s gained international notoriety as a major suicide spot.
In Japan, death is not always such a horror. It’s the fall of the cherry blossom, not its bloom, that’s celebrated the most. Change is a tradition, as we learn in Ascent, while Mount Fuji symbolises permanence.
There’s a profound stillness to Tan’s film, even though the artist has turned still photography into something cinematic. “It was like learning to cook; taking as little ingredients as possible and still making a really good meal,” she says of the project. “That was my desire. To really bring it down to the basic common denominator of what is cinema, what is film and where does it work?”
In Ascent, Tan finds fresh perspective on the mountain and the ways to approach it.