I have only seen Mount Fuji from the window of a train traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto. Its instantly recognizable silhouette conveys a feeling not just of majesty, but also of stillness. It is therefore apt that “Ascent,” written, directed and partly narrated by Fiona Tan, is announced as a “photo film.” All the images in this 80-minute feature are still. They are largely photographs of the mountain itself: in broad daylight, in the dark, covered in snow, in the background of bright panoramas of sunflowers or cherry blossoms.
Over more than 4,000 images, Ms. Tan reads from a text — a letter, it seems — as a character named Mary, who addresses her dead partner, Hiroshi. Hiroshi responds in a Japanese-language voice-over read by the actor Hiroki Hasegawa. But the construction of these two characters is less interesting than the observations and histories they impart.
Fuji’s place in Japanese culture is illuminated by way of a folk tale about a moon princess — the same story adapted by the Japanese animation master Isao Takahata in his 2014 film, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.” The presence of Fuji in the monumental Katsushika Hokusai print “Under the Wave Off Kanagawa” (also known as “The Great Wave”) is discussed, as are the enthusiasm for Hokusai’s artwork in Antwerp, Belgium, in the 19th century, and how Japanese art influenced Vincent van Gogh. “Ascent” also considers why the climactic battle in the 1960s kaiju, or giant-monster movie, “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” was staged in the shadow of Fuji.
And yet the movie is long on lyricism and short on data. You learn how much time it might take to hike to the top of Fuji, an activity explored in much detail by both of its characters, but the actual height of the mountain — a volcano still active (fiery events in the 18th century are recalled in the film) — is never mentioned. While the idea of a feature comprising nothing but photographs and voice-overs might sound a little static, Ms. Tan keeps the movie moving, in both senses of the word, with her canny use of dissolves, deliberate camera movement within a frame, and an ingenious soundtrack that often hints that the images might “come to life” at any second. Ultimately, “Ascent” is a genuinely poetic portrait of a place, and various people’s relation to it.