Holy Mountain is a lot like Bleach. Yeah, the anime. Hell, it’s a lot like most shounen action series.
That is to say it’s a lot like those series if you replaced all of the posturing, speed lines, and 10 episode long fights with sex, drugs, and exploding frogs.
Here’s a gross generalization of the standard shounen fighting anime:
- Introduce the Main Dude
- Spend some episodes with Main Dude and Irrelevant Supporting Cast
- Introduce Actual Supporting Cast
- Main Dude butts heads with Actual Supporting Cast
- Main Dude and Actual Supporting Cast run off and do something
- The End
Look at Bleach. We get Ichigo. We get him hanging with his school crew. Then they go to the Soul Society. He meets all those other Shinigami who supplant the previous crew. Ichigo and the new peeps do all that fighting stuff with each other and then against the villain. It repeats that cycle several times, but that’s the gist of it.
That’s the basic structure of Holy Mountain.
We’re introduced to The Thief, a dude obviously intended to be a Jesus surrogate. He hangs out with a paraplegic guy for a bit. They watch some frogs and lizards reenact the conquest of South America at the hands of Europe, with all of that culminating with all of said frogs and lizards being blown up. Yes, actually blown up. For reals. They do some other stuff right up to the point where The Thief ascends a tower to confront The Alchemist. They duke it out aikido-style, and once The Alchemist subdues The Thief, he shows him the way of turning his metaphorically shitty self into spiritual gold.
The Thief is the last piece of The Alchemists posse. The Alchemist has amassed an entire party of world leaders– arms dealers and bankers and generals and other important types– and he intends to take them on a spiritual journey to kill the gods who sit atop The Holy Mountain, kill them, and take their place in the hierarchy of the universe. They go on their quest, meet and defeat hardships, and accomplish their goal by means of an unexpected development.
Standard shounen stuff here, dudes.
I’m kinda bullshitting you here, but the plot structure did strike me as pretty similar to the traditional quest thing you see in these sorts of anime series. The way The Holy Mountain pauses to introduce us to each member of this group felt like the way something like Naruto would pause to fill us in on some character’s background in the middle of a tournament or whatever.
But yeah, this movie is the sort of thing for which people created phrases like “acid trip” and “fever dream.” The plot is simple enough to explain, but it’s the particulars that descend (or ascend, depending on your take on this shit) into metaphorical madness.
Like that aforementioned scene with the frogs and lizards. It has no real link to the rest of the story. Hell, the first 20 minutes or so of the movie feel like a completely different beast from the rest of the thing. The Thief and his paraplegic buddy wander around this city in some nebulously-defined South American city. They come across this reenactment. Lizards represent the native Aztecs and the like, dressed up in feathered hats and stuff. Frogs represent the Spanish, wearing Conquistador hats and monastic robes. As soon as the frogs are inserted into the scene, all hell breaks loose. Animals are attacking each other– eating each other. Then the whole display explodes. You can easily draw your own conclusions as to what this is saying about imperialism, but it has no real connection to the rest of the thing. That’s how the movie plays out before the meeting between The Thief and The Alchemist– it’s a bunch of one-off scenes connected only through the presence of The Thief. You can say this whole sequence is a way to show the evils and impurities of his life before said meeting– exposing him to sins from which he needs purification– but you could just as easily call it a mish-mash of stuff the director figured would look cool.
And that’s an important point to make about this movie. A lot of it does work on that Evangelion-like level. The director, Jodorowsky, knows his shit when it comes to new age mysticism, Christian symbolism, Buddhist philosophy, and so on, but this isn’t necessarily a movie about those concepts. The imagery is more of a tool to a different end, but said imagery makes the journey to that end all the more demented and ripe for interpretation.
What this movie about is how absurd it is for you to be looking to a fucking movie for deep, spiritual, meaningful messages.
I don’t think the movie’s arguing against someone finding meaning in a movie or any form of entertainment. The dude wouldn’t be playing off of all of these religious and philosophical things if he didn’t find some inherent purpose behind it all. What he’s mocking is the quest people go on to actively seek out meaning in the entertainment they consume– as if said enjoyment is worthless if it doesn’t result in some revelation as the picture goes black and the credits run.
Jumping ahead, the movie ends with the party reaching the summit of the titular mountain. They find the table around which these Gods supposedly weave their might. As they go to confront them, they realize that these power-hungry beings are nothing but mannequins. The Powers that Be simply don’t exist. But that isn’t the real revelation. As the characters laugh at how their quest was ultimately meaningless, The Alchemist commands for the camera to pull back, revealing the crew working on the movie. The Alchemist then looks right at the audience and basically says “Why in the hell are you watching a movie to learn something? Get out into the real world and make your own discoveries!”
That’s a pretty significant spin on the whole movie given everything that happens before. Once we get past that non-sequitur of an opening scene, the movie goes into full-on social satire. All of those powerful men and women are shown to be disgusting, manipulative, disturbing people. One of them is a hulking bodybuilder type who is the general in the army of some small country. He ruthlessly guns down peaceful protesters by the thousands, and then afterwards he celebrates with his army of underage boy soldiers whom he personally castrates when they enter his ranks. He preserves the boys testicles and keeps them on display, and when the latest boy joins his ranks it leads to one of the most bizarre and hilarious lines ever delivered in a movie:
“Your sacrifice completes my sanctuary of 1000 testicles.”
This man is the epitome of people’s fears of warmongering men: exploiting the youth for his own goals, slaughtering innocents, and relishing all of it for his own perverse pleasure. The other leaders are just as horrible. One woman runs a toy company that openly admits its toys condition young children to want to go to way. They produce comics showing monsters coming from a particular country so that said children will be more willing to go to war with that country when they’re adults. Another woman runs a weapon manufacturer that creates designer handguns suited to everyone’s tastes– including guns shaped as crucifixes and other religious relics. The economic types are shown to make their decisions on a whim, spending more time literally fucking around.
These are the people who are willing to give up everything to claim the world as their own. They burn all of their worldly possessions so that they may ascend to Godhood. In many ways that’s what some people believe. These people use their immense wealth not just to amuse themselves. Many of them use it to place themselves in power, regardless of the consequences and regardless of whether they’re competent to use that power in a reasonable manner. The very notion of these sorts of people going on the sort of quest to “save” the world by their own means is pretty damn scary. Even though they go through all of these purification rights and so on, are they really changed people? I doubt it.
But the movie the rug out from under whatever fear is generated. These people have conquered their fears and ascended to the peak only to find out that their quest was meaningless and that our observance of their quest was as well. Whatever meaning about the world and the human condition you derived from their exploits is laughed at by the very man who allowed you to come to those conclusions.
It’s a damn fascinating ending. It turns this esoteric, psychedelic trip of a movie into a farce, and I love that. It’s poking fun at people who feel they’ve made some profound statement on life by commenting on a silly movie. I don’t think it’s saying “it’s wrong to derive meaning from entertainment” so much as its saying said meaning isn’t the end-all be-all. It follows in step with my own attitudes towards this sort of thing. It’s amusing to dick around with what a story means, but it isn’t really an important thing. It’s art, and that sort of leisure is necessary from a “you shouldn’t worry about the necessary things all the time” sort of way, but it isn’t the actual content and your interpretation of such that makes said entertainment worthwhile and meaningful. That’s just a game that adds extra fun to the matter.
That’s the ending, but my favorite bit of the movie happens right before the crew reaches the Mountain. They come across a place called The Pantheon Bar. This is the place where every other seeker of the Mountain resides– partying as a way to forget their inability to reach the summit. Each character they encounter has an excuse for why they weren’t able to reach the top. Some claim to have found superior paths– spouting poetry and philosophy that’s clearly just them compensating for their own inadequacies. But there’s one particular dude who’s really awesome.
This guy boasts that he’s able to cross the mountain in mere seconds. He teleports away and returns, claiming to have gone to the other side of the mountain. How did he do this? He traveled horizontally, phasing through the mountain. Yeah, the dude “crossed” the mountain, which is something few, if any, people can claim, but he did it through cheating. Just because you reached your goal doesn’t mean you actually played the game. It’s like when people play Super Mario Bros. Everyone uses the Warp Zones, skipping levels to speed run to Bowser. Yeah, you killed Bowser and saved Princess Toadstool, but did you really play Super Mario Bros? The Warp Zones are there to be used, but in skipping most of the levels you haven’t actually experienced the game. That’s what this dude’s doing. Hey, yeah, good for you. You were able to cross the Holy Mountain. Yay and stuff. But you didn’t actually experience the Mountain and all of the horrors is makes you face, much like how using those Warp Zones keeps you from having to play through those water levels with the squids and shit.
But Jodorowsky’s laughing at me for finding meaning in that scene. And now I’m crying.