Ashima (Kenji Tsukimoto, 2023): USA

Reviewed by Logan Surber. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Ashima at the 2018 climbing world championshipAshima, directed and shot by Kenji Tsukamoto, is a stunningly beautiful documentary that follows child prodigy climber Ashima Shiraishi attempting to overcome her first V14 climb. Ashima is the most accomplished climber in history, taking numerous awards and accolades in her time, obtaining many First Female and Youngest Accolades.  This documentary is an independent project mainly funded by Kenji, who started following Ashima and her family when he first became her manager, slowly building out to start recording. This documentary is over a decade in the making and went through numerous editors sifting through years of footage to get where it is today. 

Ashima is a second-generation immigrant from Japan with her parents Tsuya and Hisatoshi “Poppo” Shiraishi who coaches her climbing, becoming a mysterious being in the climbing community due to no one understanding Japanese. Coming from a dance background in traditional Butoh Dancing, Poppo is stern in his teaching style. Believing that all problems are the fault of the individual, not having enough mental strength, and having many instances that a Westerner would believe him to be taking it too far. After the showing Kenji talked about how numerous non-immigrant viewers believed Poppo to be abusing Ashima and how he is taking his role as an instructor too far. This is brought up in the film with Ashima just brushing it off as it is, as an immigrant family the parents bring their strict parenting and teaching styles which clash against the more independent and relaxed teaching styles in the US. This gives a look inside on how a prodigy puts in 4 times the effort than what they show. When asked about the focus being primarily on Ashima and her father, Kenji said “Outside of school she spends every moment with her dad, he’s basically her only friend. – Her friends are these guys in the climbing gym who are in their 30s.” The editing done by Samuel Rong shows both the immaculate cinematography and a refined story on overcoming challenges, and how someone who is believed to have an innate skill faces challenges. 

With contemporary documentaries trying to act more like narrative films, Ashima succeeds where the others fail, with Kenji’s camera feeling truly invisible and showing where others would not be allowed. At a specific moment after a montage of the many attempts, Poppo blames Ashima’s mentality, believing that she isn’t believing in herself enough. This breaks Ashima down and a moment of silence and somberness filled the theater as the sounds of rain picked up. As a viewer it made me feel like I was looking too far into their lives, almost to an uncomfortable point. Kenji’s dedication to telling this intimate story of Ashima overcoming her hardest challenge is inspiring both the challenge of overcoming the V14 boulder, but also the challenge of finishing this documentary.

The production of this documentary started with Kenji approaching the family to be Ashima’s manager for sponsorships, interviews, and a translator. He had this position for a year before he started filming, being another member of the family he lived with them and helped lift a weight that Poppo and Tsuya couldn’t. Kenji recorded more than 5 years of footage, going on numerous trips with Poppo and Ashima which could have been the focus of this documentary. When asked why focusing on this trip specifically Kenji said “It was the trip with the most hours of footage because usually, Ashima climbs things so quickly it doesn’t seem hard even though it is.” This story shows a visually stunning story of Ashima overcoming one of her hardest challenges and attempting to become the second woman climber to complete a V14.


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