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  • Writer's pictureKerry Chambers

*Some Images NSFW*


Unpredictable, gauche, weird and provocative; words not usually associated with British cinema. But that was what you got with the work of Ken Russell. Christ gyrating, gigantic penises, snake ladies… that sweaty, naked wrestling scene. How he got away with it is beyond anyone. Well he didn’t really.


In constant battles with studio heads, censors and the general public, he was a man of conflict that manifested in his art; relentlessly true to himself whilst poking and jabbing at his critics. If anything, they fuelled his mischief. Yet again and again, the likes of Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, even Jack Nicholson in a brief unexpected cameo, gravitated towards him alongside a large following of keen fans who are enticed by his strange, mad storytelling

Altered States (Warner Bros, 1980)

Pervert, heretic and antagonist to the masses, it never stopped audiences flocking to his films. He hardly toed the line at all, rather than ground it into the dirt, flirting with operatic hysteria, camp melodrama, edging into fever dreams, challenging the institutions he despised, taking his actors and production design to the limits of creativity in Fellini-meets-Hollywood eccentricity with a dash of Borowczyk. The works were exhausting. Bending history and art to his will, drawn to the works of controversial writers, he and his large ego found a voice in the larger-than-life figures.


Russell was kind of radical. He had this obsession with the real person and the mythos that followed their notoriety, eradicating the essence of humanity within them and satirising the fandom. Perhaps this was in response to the rise of the fanfare seen through the likes of Elvis Presley and The Beatles just a few years prior. With the ease of travel, the accessibility of international consumption of media, we only saw more of an increase in this fanaticism, or should I say, it was televised. Not that it was a new thing; history has always liked to shame the fan and predominantly the young girls who make up the demographic (is it not utterly dull by now that we devalue things women like as we do with regard to literature, music, film and fads?). But with this knowledge, often Russell would take this, with lashings of liberalism from the sixties and seventies and plant it into history, contemporising the history until there is no difference to the worship of Franz Liszt in the nineteenth century, now considered high-brow consumption, as there was to the cult-like fandom we see today. But I digress.

Lisztomania (Warner Bros, 1975)

The key to Russell is to not take it too seriously. I highly doubt he ever did himself. (unless class came into it, then reality TV became a boiling broth of his disdain for all things uncouth - though how did those opinions really unravel? How did he every interpret Lady Chatterley’s Lover? How did he work with Sean Bean, ‘uncouth’ though he isn’t working class though he is?) It was his detractors who took him at face value. Flawed though he was - his depiction of the hysterical woman leaving much to be desired but one of many problematics - Russell was a major figurehead in British cinema. A product of his time and an innovator, he changed what art film could be, its accessibility to wider audiences and reignited the excitement and creativity of British film could display not seen since, I would argue, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.


The UK cinematic output is never to be underestimated and though we often come to the foreground with thought-provoking social-realist, rough around the edges crime and introspective kitchen sink affairs, we have as much arthouse and grandiose work as any other national cinema. With the dire state of film funding in the UK, it’s no wonder we do not see the likes of Russell anymore however.

The Devils (BFI, 1971)

He’s important to film, earning a cult status in the last couple of decades. With the investment of BFI and film critic Mark Kermode, much of his work is now being remastered and released on high quality Blu-ray through various collectors’ labels in the UK including the aforementioned and Arrow Video, giving his works the treatment they deserve. Today I want to try and round up an essential viewing list of his and see if you guys will find any new favourites among the eccentricities of Britain’s most significant and underrated filmmakers.


Honorable Mentions:

  • Savage Messiah (1972)

  • Mahler (1974)

  • Listzomania (1975)

Tommy (Screenbound, 1975)

10. Valentino (1977)

You don’t use Ken Russell films if you need to cut corners on your history essays. You’re not getting the truth; you’re getting his interpretation of a life too mythic to be remembered correctly. Just as he does in the melodramatic Valentino. Dancer Rudolf Nureyev stars as the Silent-era star, Rudolph Valentino, a man whose infamous career moved women to madness with his onscreen sensuality and ‘exotic’ sexiness. Until the talkies came into play. Then producers shook their heads and counted their losses, for his voice simply was not made for sound. His untimely death was so shocking; it reportedly, drove fans to suicide.


Russell takes the story of Valentino and makes his own mythology. Cynical and arguably satirical, it falls firmly into the camp, and stays there. It’s a weird biopic, grotesque in a John Waters kind of way, and ridiculous in the most Russell way imaginable. Yet its Valentino is sympathetic and Nureyev’s lack of acting ability somehow lends the role a vulnerability that makes for a sensitive characterisation of the tragic star. On top of this it’s simply a weird movie, a fascinating take on old Hollywood, and surprisingly watchable after all these years.

Valentino (BFI, 1977)

9. Gothic (1985)

Youtuber, Film Qualia, in his essay Still Dangerous – The Films of Ken Russell, described Russell’s style as ‘vandalising the past’, in the most affectionate way possible of course. And I couldn’t agree more. Historical accuracy is way on the back burner, practically dragging along the gravel-laden roads. It was extreme, artistic puppetry that made for such juicy Russell affairs. A great example of this, and far from the last, is Gothic. With Henry Fuseli references galore, plus a sexually deviant Gabriel Byrne hobbling about Byron-style, Natasha Richardson sweating and panting in horror and uncomfortable arousal surrounded by skulls, skulls, SKULLS; it’s totally what Gothicism was all about.


Before I knew who Ken Russell was I saw Gothic during my Romanticism phase, as one miserable teenager does. Did I like it? Nope. It was weird and ridiculous. But in the context of Russell and his work I revisited it and found I could say with great confidence that I have yet to see a film capture its subject and vibe quite so well. Taking the fabled stormy night in which Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelly and Dr. John Polidori came together to tell spooky stories, leading to the conception of Science Fictions most significant novel, Frankenstein, Russell plays into the nightmarish evening literally(?).

Gothic (BFI, 1985)

Russell was kind of too shocking for Hollywood. If the Brits had trouble with him, the Americans were going to be shocked and offended just as much. Yet he was funded for a great many years in ever-worse performing productions. If there is one thing, it proves how pervy the everyman is. The butts in seats, drawn by the curiosity of all things raunchy and shocking, only to be offended upon witnessing it; how very pompous. In Russell’s films, often times a perversity is welcomed, an acknowledgment of the grotesque in archaic establishments as much as there is in base human desire. In the natural acts between humans, we are bestial and depraved. Passion hand in hand with bloodlust.


In Crimes of Passion he explores the duplicity of human nature, guilt and the masks we wear, with the woman of the hour, Kathleen Turner playing business worker by day and sex worker by night opposite Anthony Perkins as the depraved minister. Heavily censored upon release, much to Russell’s teasing glee, stating that one butchering made a particular scene all the more erotic for doing so, it has since gained fandom due to its extreme stylisation. Nods to Magritte’s The Lovers, a rich style with provocative frames, shadow play, equally erotic as it is egregious, what more could you expect from Russell. Visually sumptuous, pulpy neon’s, with stage-like set pieces almost bottle-episodic between Turner and Perkins in stark comparison to the more rabid, sensual, erratic scenes of sexual play, it stands out as one of his twisted yet stirring later classics.

Crimes of Passion (Arrow Video, 1984)

I really like The Lair of the White Worm. It’s stupid. And it knows it. Based loosely on the Bram Stoker story of the same name it stars a very young Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant and a scene-munching Amanda Donohoe, for sure it’s one of the weirdest films he made. Certainly in comparison to his earlier, critically acclaimed work. For many it was evidence of how far he had fallen from grace within the Film Industry; for B Movie lovers, it was a new direction for him. And he drowned himself in the ridiculous.


When a young archaeologist, Angus Flint, uncovers a large, monstrous skull on a farm owned by a pair of virginal sisters, Eve and Mary Trent, he draws the conclusion that it is the possible remains of a mythical beast, the D’Ampton Worm, slain generations before. However, a wealthy aristocrat, Lady Sylvia Marsh, takes an interest in Flint and Eve, and strange incidents occur, it becomes apparent that the Worm still exists. Enter vampirism, snakes and crotch nibbling. It’s so daft, it becomes fabulous.

The Lair of the White Worm (Vestron, 1988)

6. Altered States (1980)

One time Russell explored drugs. And it was the trip no one expected to go on. Audiences had no clue what to make of Altered States when it graced the big screen, and to be honest most people don’t now. It stands out amongst his oeuvre, at first glance far from the style and subject we had grown used to. Gone were the historical ravishing’s, literary lavishing’s and rock operas, in their place he left a psychedelic body horror in the capacity of John Carpenter or David Cronenberg.


Adapted by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky from his own novel (so kind of literary), taking influences from the experiences of psychoactive drugs, isolation tanks and sensory deprivation to tell the story of a scientist (played by William Hurt) whose experiments trigger what he believes are genetic memories. As his life unravels around him, he goes from one extreme to the next to understand the possible discovery he has uncovered, where horror blur the lines between hallucinations and reality.

Altered States (Warner Bros, 1980)

5. Tommy (1975)

The first Rock Opera, a satirical fantasy drama, framed around the The Who’s 1969 Rock Album of the same name, starring the band themselves with Roger Daltrey (I read somewhere that Russell thought the singer was one of the most beautiful men he had ever seen…) in the titular role. But wait there’s more. Comparable to an acid nightmare and brimming with blink and you’ll miss it cameos, Tommy stars even more of cinema and music’s biggest names including Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Elton John. That alone should be enough to catch any curious viewer’s eye; yet Russell shovels in plenty of spectacle, perversity – that harrowing Keith Moon scene - and wild musical sequences that with get trapped in your head for weeks.

Tommy (Screenbound, 1975)

Having witnessed a traumatic event as child, Tommy goes into shock, psychosomatically becoming deaf, dumb and blind. However, in his teens he discovers that he is a master at Pinball, soon garnering a huge following, leading to a messiah-like legacy with those around him forming a cult in awe of his skill. Still, with fame and fortune, Tommy faces hardships and exploitation. In Ken Russell fashion, he doesn’t hold back. Utterly original, a clashing of styles that rattles the viewer’s brains, there has yet to be any music film that compares.


He would later attempt to recapture the magic in a film that has since earned its own cult-like following; Listzomania (1975). One of Russell’s composer- inspired films, it stars Daltrey once again in an utterly bizarre, ridiculous but entertaining tale of Franz Listz. It included one thing Tommy did not: the monster phallus. That’s why Tommy is only number five, of course.

Tommy (Screenbound, 1975)

Russell had a fascination with the great composers, with this falling into the unofficial series of films he made on various classic musicians, which also included Elgar (1962) and Delius: Song of Summer (1968) to name a few. Though rarely did he stick to the facts, he captured the spirit and the celebrity of his subjects. I would argue the The Music Lovers offers the most compassion towards its subject, dissecting the struggles of a man who was haunted by his desires and losses.

The Music Lovers (Final Cut, 1971)

Russell tells the story of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) during his most significant creative years, of his repressed homosexuality and his troubled marriage to the nymphomaniac Antonina Miliukova (Glenda Jackson). The screenplay by Melvyn Bragg is based on the book Beloved Friend, which through a series of letters edited and published in 1937 by Catherine Drinker Bowen and Barbara von Meck, painted a picture of the life of the composer. Told mostly in flashbacks, nightmares and fantasy sequences to the music of Tchaikovsky, this mostly silent film unpicks the composer’s trauma surrounding his mother’s horrifying death and his adult life as he longs for another man whilst struggling to maintain his reputation in the eyes of his fans and patron.


Now considered a great addition to the works of Russell, at the time it was criticised for being utterly farcical. Roger Ebert called it ‘garish private fantasy’, Toni Mastroianni said, ‘The movies have treated composers notoriously badly but few films have been quite so awful as this pseudo-biography of Tchaikovsky’. Many took issue with its historical liberties. However, time has been kind and viewed through the lens of his other works, it’s clear that Russell enjoyed playing with his history. Once again, you never take Russell too seriously; he was a man of excess with a warped imagination and in insatiable need to push boundaries.

The Music Lovers (Final Cut, 1971)

I’m going to cheat. I’m going to slap together a series of made for TV films with the BBC that encapsulates the works of great romantics; the BFI have bundled them into a marvellous set which practically makes it essential that they be viewed as a whole – plus I couldn’t choose. They are known as The Great Passions. Early Russell was quite beautiful. Perhaps the restrictions had him revel in subtlety; it suited him. He pushed boundaries still, just arguably more tastefully.

Dante's Inferno (BFI, 1967)

The first of these films is Always on Sunday (1965), a dramatized depiction of the painter Henry Rousseau’s life starring Oliver Reed, his most regular collaborator. This is followed by Isadora: The Biggest Dancer in the World (1966), which explores the obsessive and often outrageous methods of dancer Isadora Duncan and her disregard for decorum. I wonder what Russell enjoyed about her…


The final film in the series is Dante’s Inferno (1967), exploring the difficult relationship between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his model Elizabeth Siddal. This is often cited as one of Oliver Reed’s most stand-out performances, restrained and nuanced as he inhabits Rossetti. Shot in 35mm and arguably far more reserved than Russell’s later outputs, however, one can sense the passion for his subjects, for art and literature and the complexities of human dynamics with each frame. With nods to other great paintings and beautiful reconstructions of the artists’ works, imbued with a mysticism and fable-like haze to his story-telling, it’s an otherworldly interpretation the sensuous lives of the art world’s most romantic collaborators.

Dante's Inferno (BFI, 1967)

2. Women in Love (1969)

D. H. Lawrence and Russell go so comfortably hand in hand. With his 1993 Lady Chatterley and 1989’s The Rainbow, he just seemed to understand Lawrence; the internal conflict well translated to screen. Often times, it produced some of his more gentile and opulent works, still provocative yet with a pride for sensuality and the aesthetic. Not to say this film is all soft and gentle. Russell got in to trouble for this one too.


Lawrence was mad for his thinly veiled analogies, as much for his blunt vulgarity - it’s probably what ties him so comfortably to Russell and exactly what got the director in hot water… and this was when he was on good terms with most of the British studios. Perhaps it is startlingly impressive that Russell managed to get Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, the biggest British stars of the time, to tumble around naked for three days of filming. Let’s be thankful he did; it is one of cinemas most erotic scenes.

Women in Love (BFI, 1969)

An adaptation of Lawrence’s 1920 novel of the same name, the plot is simple; two sisters (Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden) fall in love with two friends (Reed and Bates), in a mining town in post-war England, each with very stark differences in their approaches to love, sexuality and commitment.


The fig scene, the wrestling with all its sweat, Bates in the field, the arguments. It’s an engaging, thought-provoking story of the mysteries of passion, love and desire and how we communicate that with another, how we as humans function with the debilitating freedom of our bodies, how it is woman (in a heteronormative frame) who takes the power, he control in the relationship. A marvellous story, it is as relevant as it was upon publication, as it was with the close of the sixties and today as we face a new discourse and liberation around sexuality.

Women in Love (BFI, 1969)

It’s Jackson’s film wholeheartedly. She won an Academy Award for it after all. Vulnerable and strong in equal measure, she is the heart and soul of the film. But I must derail the conversation. I shall confess… Me and my phases. You’d think I would just settle on one personality and that would be it but I can’t help it. You see, Women in Love was a delicious discovery during my Alan Bates deep-dive, one of the UK’s greatest actors of stage and screen, often forgotten when discussing the performers of his era. His diversity in works such as A Kind of Loving (1962), Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) made me find a new appreciation for British film of the sixties. His turn in The King of Hearts (1966) is beautiful … maybe I’ll do a list for him next. Check out Bates. He’s great.

Women in Love (BFI, 1969)

1. The Devils (1971)

When conjuring this list I only needed to speculate what other Russell films I wanted to include. The Devils always had the number one spot. It’s a masterpiece through and through. Having forgotten the existence of Gothic, my second Russell film was this; by some fascination behind the controversy, urgings of Mark Kermode’s reviews and a very specific fixation on Oliver Reed filmography (see, another phase!) I whipped out my purse and bought it. No regrets. Without sounding dramatic, it in fact proved to be one of the most significant films I have seen in my time as a movie nerd. It altered my brain science.

The Devils (BFI, 1971)

Father Grandier (Reed) and his unorthodox views have garnered him a large following amongst the people of Loudun and the lusty, repressed nuns. However, he has drawn the attentions of the power-hungry cardinal and his entourage, as a wave of religious hysteria and suspicion sweeps France. It is not long before claims of Heresy, Satanism and debauchery are laid upon Grandier and public outcry sends the city into chaos.


Here Russell adapts John Whiting’s 1960 play of the same name and revels in the chaos and perversity of the subject at hand. With set designs, all angles and parallel lines, warping in their severity with those wide angled lens, by the great Derek Jarman, he captures the sterile, clinical world of the nuns and torturers, in contrast to lavish indulgences of the church and aristocracy. The ultimate anti-establishment movies, condemning the Catholic church and Christian extremism in the most eccentric way possible, it is heaving with sultry sexuality of Reed’s hedonistic priest, the delirium-hive of sexually repressed nuns and a fetid wasteland of disease and decay, corpses of protestants on the outskirts of the walled city; Seventeenth Century France has never been so grotesque. And the things those nuns get up to… The violent torture in the name of God.

The Devils (BFI, 1971)

‘My Hump, my hump!’ I’ll often decry, will be haunted by the image of Vanessa Redgrave licking Reeds weeping wounds in her fantasy of Jesus, and writhing with the bone. You know which bone. Curse Warner Brothers for vaulting ‘The Rape of Christ’ scene, which I have watched, yet to be restored to the films original cut, even years after Kermode’s work in preparing for the BFI home release. By today’s standards, it is still shocking. But it is not unwatchable. Considering Salo is available, Irreversible, even Cannibal Holocaust, surely a manic scene of hysterical nuns gyrating on a statue can’t be that abhorrent to the studio. Let’s keep kicking up a stink to get the film fully uncut!

The Devils (BFI, 1971)

 

There you have it, my ranked suggestions for the works of Ken Russell. He’s a marmite kind of filmmaker but there is something for everyone in his outputting’s. Even if you don’t like him, you certainly cannot deny he is a force to be reckoned with, something wholly original and someone we are likely never to see again in British film. I hope you find something new and exciting to sink your teeth into!

Women in Love (BFI, 1969)

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  • Writer's pictureKerry Chambers

Today as I relish the bumbling of the cooing pigeon’s fussing about the birdfeeder, thinking about summer’s I may never quite have, could never possibly have and all those I so far have had (not that I’m willing to count anymore). Though I despise the heat and refuse direct sunrays on my pasty, burnable bone sack, I sit back in the shade and breathe in the fresh air and think just how lovely summer can be when I don’t have heatstroke. A springtime soul at heart who prefers lush grass to scorched, a contradictory Leo, it is in my latter years that I have found something palatable about the season.

Summer Wars (Manga Entertainment, 2009)

The blaze of the heat, the azure skies peppered with blooms of stark, white fluffy clouds, the cool blue waters of the ocean lapping at your feet, the crisp call of the cicadas on the breeze; there's nothing quite like a hazy, lazy summer’s day. Wait a minute, did I say Cicadas? Crickets in the UK yes, but an abundance of Cicadas? An insect relatively rare in this part of the world? Well, sounds like I’m talking about an entirely different continent.


I am. Because there is certainly nothing quite so tantalising as a summer in Anime.

It’s no secret that I’m a lil’ Anime nerd. Of course I seek the hyper-realistic, fantastical realms of animation to get my seasonal fixes somehow. I could go out and create my own memories, embrace this thing called life and thrive as much on the art of others as well as the art of simply living. But I do that. Sort of. Sometimes Anime just fills the blanks. Like plaster in my crevice-infused spiritual house - too much subsidence I guess.

Children of the Sea (Anime Limited, 2019)

Both recognisable and often refreshing, Anime has an ability to transport its viewer. Some places are long gone, have never been, taken from memories and imaginations of skilled artists and storytellers. I am filled with sentimentality, awe and nostalgia. My heart weeps and soars. Do I get that looking like a boiled weiner dog from a jar? No.


So here’s 13 Anime to Enjoy this Summer.


13. Penguin Highway (Dir. Hiroyasu Ishida, 2018)

A quirky romp to start things off. A coming of age story, Penguin Highway follows a naïve, endearing if a little obnoxious young boy on the cusp of teenager-dom as he investigates the strange arrival of penguins in his village. With the aid of his friends, the dental assistant he crushes on and his love of science he tries to understand the phenomena whilst navigating his burgeoning feelings and thirst for knowledge.


Cutesy and compelling, funny and fantastical whilst grounded, this feature debut by Youtube animator Ishida is beautiful and strange all in one. Most of all it’s fun. Embracing its absurd premise, the adaptation of Tomihiko Morimi’s novel (the author of The Tatami Galaxy and Fox Tales) revels in the delight of youthful curiosity, inspiration and adventure; director Ishida fixates on the desire for discovery, in itself the most pure want, tethered to our own inner child – that’s what summertime is for after all. Though far from perfect, this one is unique and fun watch.

Penguin Highway (Anime Limited, 2018)

12. Summer Ghost (Dir. Loundraw, 2021)

This film is suffering a little beneath accusations of Makoto Shinkai rip-offs, who in himself was accused of ripping off Ghibli. If we go back far enough we’re going to see some stupid pattern where cynics open their mouths and complain about rip-offs left, right and center when even calling something a rip off at this point is bordering on rip-offery. Make what you will… The age of pessimism has gotta be wrapping up. The world is shit; duh. Let’s delight in something else for a while, in the novelty of 2D animation for one.

Summer Ghost (Anime Limited, 2021)

Personally, I was refreshed.


I loved this short, executing a tale that does not overstay its welcome yet encapsulates the trials and weightiness of modern life. Three teens come together, meeting online as they plan to find the enigmatic Summer Ghost. With a bag of fireworks, they attempt to summon the spirit of a young woman rumoured to have committed suicide who can only be seen by those within reach of death. All that ties these people are the Ghost, desperate questions about mortality and their solemn troubles. However, the meeting leads to an unfurling mystery surrounding the deceased woman.

Summer Ghost (Anime Limited, 2021)

10. Lu Over the Wall (Dir. Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

What a delight; Lu Over the Wall is as close to The Little Mermaid Yuasa is ever going to get, somehow melding a wonderful adventure and conscientious tale exploring the merfolk lore in a unique, rather musical sort of way. In a seaside village, the locals have condemned music, reinforcing the legend of the threatening mermaid that lurk nearby and consume humans, roused form the murky depths by song.

Lu Over the Wall (Anime Limited, 2017)

Teenager Kai takes little notice of rumours and spends his time making looped beats and uploading them online and along with his new found friends, secretly begin jamming sessions too. However, one night Kai is visited by a strange girl who emerges from the ocean and delights at his music. The merfolk are real, but how menacing are they really?


I love Yuasa films. His exaggerative comedic, cartoonish style, his neat blend of musical and visual storytelling, pulsing with life like a fever dream, is never out of place with many a classic helmed by him. I mean, Devilman Crybaby is a phenomenal retelling of a classic manga. Mind Game, The Tatami Galaxy (mentioned again), his latest Inu-oh; I can go on and on. He’s one of animations most exceptional modern directors.

Lu Over the Wall (Anime Limited, 2017)

9. Children of the Sea (Dir. Ayumu Watanabe, 2019)

I wrote a whole review on this film, 'From the Sea...', so taken by it as I was. An adaptation of the Daisuke Igarashi’s five volume manga of the same name, it’s almost Akira-esque in its apocalyptic philosophy and transcendentalism, toeing the line with a cosmic body-horror at times. I was totally surprised by this stunning, enigmatic film. It’s also a patient and lingering mediation. Hypnotic animation, slice of life and coming of age and something altogether more, it’s a challenging and unusual experience all of its own.

Children of the Sea (Anime Limited, 2019)

A teenage girl’s summer vacation is disrupted following her exclusion from the handball team. With no desire to waste her days at home with her alcoholic mother, she mooches at the local aquarium where her father works. It is here she meets a mysterious boy. Raised by dugongs, he now lives at the aquarium, where research is conducted on him and his brother and their water-dependent bodies. As strange bond forms between the three of them, taking them on dazzling explorations of the ocean, they are soon swept into the bizarre preparations of the sea creatures of the world for the upcoming seismic even known only as a ‘festival’. Where do these two other-worldly boys fit into the upheaval of the ocean?

Children of the Sea (Anime Limited, 2019)

8. Summer Days with Coo (Dir. Keiichi Hara, 2007)

Let’s get cute now because I need it at this point in my life. Summer Days with Coo reminds me of a lot of animation adventures I watched growing up, the ‘if you love them let them go’ narratives that have seared into my brain that I seldom forget (of course I need an alternative outcome to E.T). This film simply tickled that fancy of pure, unadulterated excitement and wonder, capturing the delightful friendship between a young boy and his Kappa friend, a tortoise type, water-dwelling yokai of Japanese folklore.


A young boy living in the suburbs of Tokyo whiles away his summer vacation until he uncovers a unique stone which turns out to be a fossil harbouring a baby Kappa. Sleeping underground for hundreds of years, they fast become friends and he names the little creature Coo. Though happy with his new family, Coo soon desires a return to nature and his own kind, stifled by his life among the humans.

Summer Days with Coo (Anime Limited, 2007)

7. Goodbye, Don Glees! (Dir. Atsuko Ishizuka, 2022)

When three misfit teens come together one summer night to light fireworks and reminisce for what seems the last time, their evening goes awry with a renegade, unlicensed drone. The next day, rumours amongst their classmates of a forest fire caused by their antics flood their social media and determined to prove their innocence, they embark on the hunt for the drone footage that will provide evidence, now lost somewhere in the mountainous forests beyond their home village.

Goodbye, Don Glees! (Anime Limited, 2022)

Oof! I could not take my eyes off this film. If there was anything that helped reignite that fire for Anime this year, it would be this one. An artfully, unashamedly sentimental adventure of three boys on their last hurrah as school and life sees them following different paths and growing up. Kinetic composition, a heart-swelling soundtrack, contemplative sequences infused with that dusky palette as summer comes to a close and youth is left in its wake, it’s a stellar work from studio Madhouse and director Ishizuka. She brought a tear to my eye that’s for sure! Pining for a nostalgia that was perhaps never even mine, for that Stand by Me-esque comradery that is found in no other place but the past, Goodbye, Don Glees! in traditional fashion revels in the journey of self-discovery. It’s never about the destination after all.

Goodbye, Don Glees! (Anime Limited, 2022)

(Disclaimer - Letterboxd users are wilfully miserable and decidedly ignorant about films in general unless it’s Ari Aster or Greta Gerwig)


6. Kids on the Slope (Dir. Shinichiro Watanabe, 2012)

I feel like I haven’t written about Watanabe in years, yet not a day goes by I don’t interact with Cowboy Bebop. I have Bebop on the brain. Brainbop.


But this entry is not Bebop - I've written plenty on it after all (here in my reflection on the timeless dynamics of the charctsers and crew How I’ve Found Ways to ‘…Carry That Weight’. Hard as I tried, I just couldn’t quite wangle a summertime vibe from that melancholic masterpiece, and the film is blatantly autumnal with the Halloween parade so I had to dig a little deeper. I even considered Samurai Champloo; equally summery, a warmer, perhaps slightly more playful classic than the repeatedly mentioned (Bebop) and fits the theme of this article more so than his powerful Terror in Resonance and Hilarious Space Dandy. But I realised something; all of these I have covered in numerous articles. And there was one, very summery and often under-appreciated short series that I have yet to cover. Kids on the Slope.

Kids on the Slope (MVM Entertainment, 2012)

All those Watanabe flavours are there. Sultry scores by the iconic Yoko Kanno, electric animation - the accuracy of the instrument playing -and that indescribable coolness all wrapped up in a period piece following three high schoolers in the 1960’s united by their unique love of jazz music. A lonely, introverted classical pianist and top student collides with the school delinquent and somehow a friendship blooms. Jamming in the basement of a fellow student, they find themselves stepping out of their comfort zones, thriving and feeling with the throes of love and losses, embracing their youth through the rhythmic, unpredictable nature of music.

Kids on the Slope (MVM Entertainment, 2012)

5. Summer Wars (Dir. Mamorou Hosoda, 2009)

Another director I have talked lot’s about is Hosoda. I’ve been rather loud when I’ve ranted about my love of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (my essay Time Waits for No One is manaic proof) which to this day is still my absolute favourite among his works. But this doesn’t quiet fit my summer theme as much as I would like. So I went with the obvious choice. Despite that choice being a real challenge the first time I watched it. Summer Wars is one I have found over time to grow on me in ways that came so easily for Wolf Children and The Boy and the Beast, yet those re-watches were worth it in the end.

Summer Wars (Manga Entertainment, 2009)

Equally funny and engrossing, the chaotic energy stands out the most, maintaining its energy thorughout. This sci-fi plays around with reality and online personas as well as the tricky manoeuvrings of romance and family. A tech nerd is asked by his classmate to pose as her fiancé during a summer trip to her family home for her Grandmother’s birthday. Though a secret crush of his, he must weave the complicated and hectic antics of her large family whilst also combatting his own problems; the biggest being a monumental, careless technical error he created in the digital world of OZ, inhabited by millions of profiles internationally.

Summer Wars (Manga Entertainment, 2009)

4. When Marnie Was There (Dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2014)

A foster child, Anna, is sent to the country for the summer due to health reasons, hiding an uncomfortable secret from her adoptive family that weighs heavy on her. Whilst there, she is seen as sullen and hostile by the local children and struggles, as she does at home, with making friends, instead, spending her time drawing the old house by the sea that has enraptured her. That is until she meets the strange girl who lives there. Her name is Marnie, and swiftly a friendship blossoms. However, she is not quite what she seems and soon Anna must investigate the mystery of Marnie and her own troubled family.

When Marnie Was There (Studiocanal, 2014)

And then I cried. Based on the novel of the same name by British author Joan G. Robinson, it infuses that bitter-sweetness of the coming of age tale and all of that Studio Ghibli spark. With a swelling score and touching upon the themes of friendship, abuse and familial love, I was enraptured by how mature and heartfelt this film was. It’s so grounded in comparison ot the catalogue of Ghibli works, no slander though that is, somehow taking something rather banal and weaving magic into the everyday. Healing and reassuring, it’s a comfort film that must undo me to put me back together again.

When Marnie Was There (Studiocanal, 2014)

3. Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (Dir. Tatsuyuki Nagai, 2011)

Five years after Menma’s death, she has yet to move onto the Afterlife. As her friends have drifted apart of time, with the pressures of school and life now weighing them down, finally they reunite to help her remember and fulfil a wish that will help her pass on. In doing so, their own pasts are unsettled and they must face hard truths about themselves and their futures.


Why did this list get so emotional all of the sudden? A brief but impactful story, I found myself shaken by this series and its gut-wrenching tale of friendship, grief and memory. Ruminating on the simplistic days of old, the importance of those memories we share together, with a lovely set of memorable, realistic characters and a whimsical plot, it’s a perfect summer tale.

Anohana (MVM Entertainment, 2011)

2. My Neighbour Totoro (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

When two girls move with their father to the countryside to be near their sick mother, they encounter the forest spirits that roam nearby, swept on adventures and shown the marvellous magic’s that shape our world.

My Neighbour Totoro (Studiocanal, 1988)

I don’t need to spend a lot of time here. It’s Totoro. If you haven’t seen it, you will see it. If you don’t want to see it… you will see it. If you have seen it, you’re gonna watch it again. My inclusion of it on this list bears no weight on these outcomes. Its life affirming, utterly adorable, pure heart-swelling fantasy that sweeps you into the enchantment of nature and childhood glee, of that novelty of wonderment, brimming with wonderful creatures. Just watch it.


Miyazaki, with Ghibli and Isao Takahata, just knows how to make us feel alive. Give us hope. Sparkle a little sentimentalism and delight in the everyday. Without him I would never have learnt to romanticise my existence. We wouldn’t have that massive furry forest beast, or cat buses or soot sprites or No Face or moving castles or the kodama or hunky tax-evading wizards! Check out my top Ghibli picks here.

My Neighbour Totoro (Studiocanal, 1988)

1. Into the Forest of Fireflies Light (Dir. Takahiro Oomori, 2011)

Oh, to see this film for the first time again. Often lauded as one of the most tear-jerking anime, I steeled myself as I ploughed through that entire list of sob-fests to trigger some kind of feeling in me. I was perhaps mildly unhinged at the time and was taken out by almost each one, my hardy armour nothing more than tin foil I’d over bent and frayed. But, before watching Clannad: After Story and ruining my life for good, I embraced this short.

Into the Forest of Fireflies Light (2011)

During summer vacation with her grandfather, little Hotaru gets lost in the forest. Warned of the spirits that reside there, she is frightened and begins to cry. Only to be found by a mysterious masked boy named Gin. She runs to him but is abruptly stopped to her dismay, for he has been cursed; should he ever be touched by a human, he will disappear forever.


Sharing a stick, he leads her out of the forest and asks her never to return. However, what begins is a timely tradition each summer in which Hotaru travels to her grandfather’s and whiles away her days in the company of Gin. With the passing years, they grow closer. Until, at last, they can no longer deny the mutual feelings that have bloomed between them.

Into the Forest of Fireflies Light (2011)

A perfect, deeply moving and romantic fable that I feel completely encapsulates the perfect Anime summer flick, Into the Forest of Fireflies Light is a minute masterpiece. Those deep lush greens of the summer dappled with light that bleeds through the leaves in the canopies above. The ancient land peaking up amongst the foliage, marring the steps that wind up the mountain they climb each year together. The tripping and tumbling of the fireflies at night, playing on the cooling air of those warm nights; that atmosphere pulses and thrums with the spellbinding presence of the ancient spirits. Then there is the sweet melodic score that resides beside the chaste love story, one full of as much yearning and longing as there is companionship and respect.


Ugh I love this film! Go watch it and cool down with the tears.


 

There you have it. Thanks for taking the time to peruse my list today. I was torn between an animated or live action list (more shockingly, even a hybrid) but I settled for anime. I suppose what I would have recommended in the end would have been present on various other lists I have compiled so far. I hope you have found some enjoyment out of this recommends today and better yet a new favourite and do let me know what some of your beloved Summertime Anime are. Cheers!

Anohana (MVM Entertainment, 2011)

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  • Writer's pictureKerry Chambers

*Some Images NSFW*


The Beast (Arrow Academy, 1975)

Director, animator, provocateur, the ‘engineer of ecstasy’ and more, Walerian Borowczyk wore many a guise in his fruitful yet controversial career. But under the hard rule of studios, critics and censors, he was tarnished with the label of pervert. And to be fair he would be unhappy with all the labels thus far. He was a pervert, but that wasn’t to mean that was a bad thing.


Born in Poland in 1923, it was his upbringing under seismic political and emotional conflict that seemed to shape much of his barbed humour and wry commentaries. A later move to France - where many of his works would be made - helped mould his artistic sensibilities, motivated by the shifts in contemporary cinema that saw the rise of arthouse film across Europe.

Behind Convent Walls (Noevaux, 1978)

Though erotica was the label most pinned to him, his films were layered in satire and nuance. It is a shame that much of his criticisms and philosophical musings were lost when the censors hacked his films to pieces for decades. But being known as a pornographer, and the wicked and perverse man he could be, was not insult to Borowczyk who once said: “Eroticism, sex, is one of the most moral parts of life. Eroticism does not kill, exterminate, encourage evil, lead to crime. On the contrary, it makes people gentler, brings joy, gives fulfilment, leads to selfless pleasure.”


It has not been until recent archival excavations and relaxing of censorships on his films for home release that many of his works have been uncovered and enjoyed in their fullest state. Through Arrow Video with their Camera Obscura restoration and BFI here in the UK we have seen a new love rained upon the director’s works.

A Game of Angels (Arrow Academy, 1964)

It’s easy for me to sit back and say I don’t like the films of Walerian Borowczyk (it’s only a sentence after all). More specifically that I was disappointed by them. But when I reflect on the fact that wonderful authors such as Angela Carter remained a fan of his work and was the inspiration for giants such as Terry Gilliam, I found myself drawn to them. So the bar was high. But through the disappointment and sometimes boredom I recall the quote by Abbas Kirastami; ‘I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theatre… but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning and keep on thinking about them for weeks.’


I’m a huge fan of slow cinema, so long plodding and reflective films are a big Yes. I’m also fond of experimental and taboo bending films; Japanese cinema, for example, is very close to my heart. All in all, I also love a good raunchy film now and again, the more novel the better. Let’s be frank; I love film. And though Borowczyk hardly falls into slow cinema, he is a master of the surreal, absurd and filthy. So it’s a shame I never clicked. Or did I?

Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (Arrow Academy, 1981)

The pornographer artiste saw many of his films banned across the world to his delight. Some of his politics, I do not harbour though how much the provocateur he intended to be in such gesticulating, we shall never know, but something about his films no matter how much I didn’t actually like them, I think about daily. There is certainly a biting commentary, a titillation and cheeky nod no matter what you see in it. Most of all, its glorious perversion filmed in some of the prettiest erotic lighting I’ve ever seen. In fact all of his films have delectable palettes and playful mise-en-scene. To the eye, they are quite the treat.


So today, I’m exorcising myself of Boro once and for all by deep-diving the ones I think about most of all. Maybe I’ll be able to write again once it’s free from me, I will shed the heretic guise and restore my pure, little movie-loving heart. Or I’ll just hit up some more wild works (Fassbinder’s on the TBW pile).

Immoral Tales (Arrow Academy, 1973)

10. Blanche (1971)

Oh yeah, I’m putting this low. Maybe the perfect example of my disappointment in a film despite enjoying elements of the overall thing comes in the package of Blanche. With a tone that I’m certain the Python’s seemed to be taken with and an aesthetic not quite captured again in medieval fares (though Ridley Scott tried his darnedest in his Rashomockery slog), I did find something to come away with. After the first half an hour or so, I found myself floundering a little. It stands out in rather stark contrast to the eroticism that followed in latter works, a far more conservative piece with as much of the black humour he imbued his stories with. Though the critics rave for its historical authenticity, there’s little else I found to vibe with.


The pure, young and beautiful wife of the aging master of the land, Blanche, is coveted by all those she meets. Kind and gentle, she is soon hounded by the love and lust of the men who visit including the king and his servant. Give this one a go, if only to get a sense of Borowczyk’s more restrained work and for his skill and attention to detail. Who knows, you may just love it.

Blanche (Arrow Academy, 1971)

The trend is I am always disappointed. The other is I can’t shake Borowczyk. The other other is Borowczyk films are great to look at. He has that knack. This film very much reminds me of the early career Almodóvar; he had plenty of mad nuns getting up to all sorts of mischief and it’s not a surprise he could have been influenced by a filmmaker like Borowczyk. And one of my favourite genres is nunsploitation; I realise now I have never rambled about the works of Ken Russel or my specific obsession with Oliver Reed in a clerical robe…


Anyway, back to this. The plot is as all of these kinds of films follow; the nuns of the convent are seemingly well behaved. However, they get up to all sorts of naughty business. Once again, there is certainly a biting sense of humour here. Does much happen? No, not in the plot-sense. But beneath his lens, he finds a way to paint the lewd and vulgar with some eroticism.

Behind Convent Walls (Noveaux, 1978)

Something far more thoughtful now. The first feature-length film was also Borowczyk’s final animated and a culmination of his finest ideas. With hints of what was later to come and an unsettling perversity that enters on comedic barbarism, it’s a surrealist mastery in motion.


Formed of loosely-connected scenes, it follows the monstrous figure of Mrs Kabal and her meek husband (a grotesque-er Punch and Judy I guess) as they partake in various bizarre and cruel acts. The films itself is a mesh of different styles, of hand-drawn and cut out puppetry alongside clippings from illustrations and photographs (you can really see Gilliam’s inspiration on The Monty Python animation) alongside some uncanny sound mixing and strange dubbing sporadically translated.

Mr and Mrs Kabal's Theatre (Arrow Academy, 1967)

You just can’t look away from this one. I opt for the censored version against my usual protestations on the arrow release because there are some things I just don’t (and its one scene), especially when I know it’s the real deal (I cannot unsee the hint of what I had… so many regrets). However, this one really sums up his latter work in ‘sexploitation’.


Through a tour of Borowczyk’s personal collection of vintage erotica, he narrates with his funny little musings all the while shocking his audience. Serving as much a historical traipse through the perverse interest of our forefathers and how they liked to get their rocks off, it becomes highly reflective of perception verses deepest desires. If you’re ever starting a marathon, hit this one up I guess. You can see where he got some of his inspiration. If only I could bleach some of my memory.

A Private Collection (Arrow Academy, 1973)

A number of Borowczyk’s shorts could go here. In fact it could be argued some of him most striking work was in short form. However, a couple that best represent his work in the sixties should suffice. He was at his most abstract in this period, finding and telling deeply harrowing and possibly personal works to the most remarkable effect. This is no better showcased than his unsettling short, A Game of Angels.


In a nightmarish factory, angel-like creatures are produced. At thirteen minutes it manages to capture the bleak, incessant horror of industrialisation, interpreted as an allegory of the Soviet period and the Concentration Camp experience. Though much of Borowczyk’s past was never known, it is easy to see this film as possibly one of his most personal and dark animations.

A Game of Angels (Arrow Academy, 1964)

5. The Beast (1975)

It’s interesting to note that many of his films are blatantly divisive by how striking the average reviews are. Often cited as his twisted retelling of Beauty and the Beast, the story actually shares very little with original fairy-tale. No film by Borowczyk caused quite as much a stink as this one. But I suppose, when people didn’t think he could get any freakier, he did drop one infuriatingly long opening scene (and close-up), that was also shamefully mahoosive. It’s his way of saying; ‘I dare you to keep watching’. It’s a complete endurance test to his viewer’s eyeballs.

The Beast (Arrow Academy, 1975)

A young woman is intended to inherit a vast fortune when she agrees to marry a man but it is not long before she discovers a dark past of the family which involves a monstrous beast. I appreciate the extremes Borowczyk goes and his costume designers too; I was both equally in peals of laughter and utterly impressed. No half-arser are they. When you see, you’ll catch my drift. And boy does he milk that prosthetic (the puns!).


But the film plods through its middle, with a few shocking scenes here and there until you’re thoroughly worn out by all the sheer nightdresses and lewd households. Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, nor could I forget what I saw (which is really difficult to do once you’ve seen it). Its finale is the real show-stopper, intended originally as a short for Immoral Tales he chose to extend; Borowczyk explores the nature of the beast within human nature, sexuality and bestiality. It’s a biting commentary on our own primordial desires and jabs heavily at the prudish and critics of the time. Even now, it is pure taboo farce. That it still shocks proves that it achieved… something.

The Beast (Arrow Academy, 1975)

One of the few Borowczyk films I could consider genuinely thoughtful has to be this 1969 feature. Interpreted as an allegory of his own early life and the rule of fascism that stifled his country, a simple black and white film with few and far between glimmers of striking colour, its elements of the theatrical, the cabinet of curiosities set pieces that encroach around the story and its characters makes it the closest live-action film he directed to his own animations. But the affect is engrossing and wonderfully unique. The film was banned by fascist Spain and communist Poland.

Goto, Island of Love! (Arrow Academy, 1969)

An island called Goto, ruled by a ruthless dictator, is shaken when a lowly thief works his way through the ranks. Meanwhile, himself and the other islanders are seduced by the temptation of love and lust that seems to knock the foundations of their oppressive rulership.

Goto, Island of Love! (Arrow Academy, 1969)

3. Immoral Tales (1973)

Rumour has it, (the internet) a Church in Poland held mass to pray for the souls of Borowczyk’s film distributors. Mythos declares that during an outdoor screening of Immoral Tales, a storm broke out and yet not a single audience member left their seat, enduring the titillation through thunder and lighting. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was present, and quizzed Borowczyk later at the bar on his lack of male erections on film to which the Polish filmmaker replied, ‘There were, in the crowd, despite the thunderstorm and lightning.’

Immoral Tales (Arrow Academy, 1973)

This gets a high ranking because the length of the entries that just worked well. As equally controversial as The Beast upon release, Immoral Tales benefits from its anthology set up exploring sexual fantasises and the taboo through significant figures and nameless lovers throughout history. Despite the gruesomeness of some of the tales, repulsive and brutal, one thing of merit one can take from this is his desire for liberalism though sexuality, perfectly captured in all its naturalistic, nude-y glory.

Immoral Tales (Arrow Academy, 1973)

Funny that my favourite Borowczyk are his most literary. Based on the 1908 novel The Wages of Sin by Stefan Żeromski, somehow the polish filmmaker is restrained in his retelling, marvellously so, proving as much that he could capture sensuality and taboo without being… well, crass. Of course the film has its moments but at BBFC fifteen, it’s far less graphic in nature than its title suggests. Calling to mind the visual flare of Ingmar Bergman/Sven Nykvist seventies collaboration, it feels far more thoughtful and mature than many of his other works.

Story of Sin (Arrow Academy, 1975)

A moving and intimate portrait of a fall from grace, following the plight of a beautiful polish girl who endures a series of tragic, cruel encounters with men out to use her across Europe as she searches for the man she loves. Of the films on this list, it may be the only Polish one here and certainly the most Polish of all his works, a guided criticism of the hypocrisy of the deeply Roman Catholic country. His heroine, though foolish, harbours much agency in her choices and somehow remains a strangely endearing lead, perhaps the most feminist of all of Borowczyk’s women and certainly the most admirable.

Story of Sin (Arrow Academy, 1975)

I don’t like this film. But at this point I must have Stockholm syndrome or something because I’ve included it in a couple of my other articles and still not a day goes by where I don’t picture the never-ending bathtub scene and wonder to myself why it had to be ten minutes. And now I'm calling it my favourite? Apparently.

Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (Arrow Academy, 1981)

Aesthetically, for sure. With the hazy lights, shady hallways and the gauzy dreamlike quality to the film that gives me a lot of latter Seijun Suzuki vibes, I yearn for films in the Twenty-first century to capture a look like this.


An interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in 19th century London a sex maniac sneaks into the titular characters engagement party and wreaks absolute havoc on all the guests, leaving behind some questionable wounds and leading the evening into debauchery, mystery and madness. A horror-like fable, it’s all about the atmosphere. Sensual and decadent, and somehow a little more highbrow than his other provocative works (despite Mr Hyde), it’s just a mood. It was probably the last really intriguing film he made. Shocking and ridiculous and over the top, the effects and costumes are so on point that it’s forgiven all of its sins. Even the devilish Hyde and his menacing member.

Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (Arrow Academy, 1981)

 

There you have it; my love/hate relationship with Walerian Borowczyk has accumulated in a top ten list. Join me in the sensual gutter! Do you dare the murky sleaze, carnal eroticism of Poland’s most controversial filmmaker? Or are you not ready to battle with the remotes volume as you hear your housemate come up the stairs? With all that neighing they had to find out what you were doing, right?


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A Space for Reviews, World Cinema Appreciation, Essays and Reflections by Writer Kerry Chambers

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