Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s 2018 documentary, was a visually stunning document of a truly impressive feat: Alex Honnold climbing the entirety of El Capitan without any ropes, harnesses, or other climbing equipment. But what elevated Free Solo, beyond the incredible images it captured, was the figure at its center. Honnold, a then-31-year-old with few cares in the world beyond his next climb, boasts a personality that takes up the entire screen, even when he exists only as a speck on the massive rock he is scaling. Since Free Solo, Honnold has been the face of rock climbing to the uninitiated, and few climbing documentaries that have come in Free Solo’s wake conclude without at least a cameo from Honnold — the resident expert witness.
Ashima, the latest in the growing canon of climbing films, features a similarly larger-than-life character. Ashima Shiraishi was 14 years old when she became only the second woman to conquer a V14 boulder problem. For those who don’t frequent their local climbing gym on a regular basis, suffice it to say that such an accomplishment is incredibly impressive; less than 0.01 percent of climbers have completed a V14 problem. But it isn’t Ashima herself who seems to burst from the film’s images — it’s her father, Poppo, a charismatic figure who dominates the screen even when the film’s central subject is the ostensible focus. With no prior climbing experience, Poppo became Ashima’s coach when she showed promise in the sport. A former Butoh dancer, Poppo uses the techniques he employed in his dance to teach Ashima climbing essentials like self-discipline and mental fortitude.
And so, Ashima isn’t only — or even necessarily — the story of a young girl accomplishing a seemingly impossible feat, but a more humble tale of the eternal struggle between fathers and daughters. It would have been easy for director Kenji Tsukamoto to lean on stereotypes in seeking to capture and communicate this dynamic, but he details Ashima and Poppo’s story with a notable nuance. Poppo is strict and pushes Ashima beyond her limits when it comes to climbing, but he’s also clearly loving and supportive. It’s a fine line that Tsukamoto toes through showcasing small but significant moments; in one moment, Poppo tells Ashima that “there’s zero chance” she will complete the V14; in another, he attentively and gently helps her practice her TED talk. In other instances, Tsukamoto lingers on moments like Ashima descending into a giggle fit or not realizing she has chalk dust on her nose while speaking, never letting the climber subsume the child, and keeping this fundamental innocence always within the audience’s view.
Where Free Solo functioned as an exercise in grandiose image-making that centered a grandiose figure, Ashima revels in the power of smaller, more intimate experiences, with Poppo’s bombastic presence tempered by a more grounded tenderness and intimacy that Honnold exhibits as a subject. Ashima’s mother talks about fertility difficulties, Poppo tells Ashima “we all need to overcome being self-conscious and wanting to hide” — Tsukamoto understands that these details that may seem insignificant are an inescapably compelling part of a person’s story, and Ashima, rather than competing with other works to reflect the grandeur of extreme sport, is made all the better by ensuring these little, modest moments remain at the fore.
Published as part of DOC NYC 2023 — Dispatch 1.