The Pillow Book (1996)



(director/writer/editor: Peter Greenaway; cinematographer: Sacha Vierny; editor: Chris Wyatt; cast: Vivian Wu (Nagiko), Ewan McGregor (Jerome), Ken Ogata (The Father), Judy Ongg (The Mother), Hideko Yoshida (The Aunt/The Maid), Yoshi Oida (The Publisher), Ken Mitsuishi (The Husband); Runtime: 126; Film Four/Kasander & Wigman/Alpha/Woodline; 1996-UK)

“This one’s pure Greenaway.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Pillow Book is a Peter Greenaway (Drowning by Numbers, Prospero’s Books) mesmerizing visual experience that touches base with spiritual and erotic themes.

Calligraphy is one subject that few movies have used as a theme; but, Greenaway, true to his reputation as a filmmaker with an outrageous streak in him, continues to make outlandish films that have a certain perversity. Here he starts off filming in black-and-white the childhood experiences of Nagiko (Wu), who wondrously listens to the stories being read by her aunt (Yoshida) from a 1,000-year text based on the work of Sei Shonagon, a courtesan. This spellbinding journal of sayings on the subjects of the flesh and literature, makes up “The Pillow Book.” The idea of that book is that the texts of those two subjects (sex & art) should fuse together as one, with there being no difference between literature and beauty in their union. Pillow Book is an individual’s diary of observations and a presentment of an interesting list of things the diarist jots down.

Nagiko’s father (Ogata), whom she idolizes, is a master calligrapher who paints her face with characters to celebrate her birthdays. He tells her: “If God approved of his creation, he will bring the clay model he created to life by signing his name to it.” This seems to tickle the little girl’s fancy so much so that when we next see her as a young woman in Technicolor, we realize that she has developed a fetish for having her skin written on — equating her lovers with how good a calligrapher they are.

After marrying in a traditional Japanese ceremony to someone she knows cannot please her who is forced on her through an arranged marriage by her father’s publisher (Yoshi Oida), she will leave this husband whom she cannot relate with and move to Hong Kong. Once there she will take odd-jobs, until becoming a fashion model and then a writer on flesh. She will not communicate with her father from abroad after witnessing her father’s boss, the publisher, force her father to have anal sex with him, which he does in order to have his books published.

The film concentrates on Nagiko having her lovers write over her nude body, but she is becoming increasingly frustrated in finding the lover who is the perfect combination of lover and calligrapher. Nagiko will meet a young English translator she falls for even though she considers him a scribbler, Jerome (Ewan). To solve her dilemma of being with someone who is not a calligrapher, she writes on Jerome’s skin after he offers her his body.

Jerome crushes Nagiko’s spirit by having a homosexual relationship with the same publisher who destroyed her husband financially, blackmailed her father, and now has soiled the one she loves. Nagiko thought that she could use him to get vengeance on the publisher but when he goes naked before the publisher and the publisher reads The Book of a Lover that she wrote on him, this act makes her jealousy rage and she spurns Jerome.

The plot turns surprising simple as revenge becomes the motive for Nagiko, and this offbeat film will remain interesting mostly through its striking visualizations.

The stunning visualizations range from ones of comedy to ones of sensuality to ones of gross cruelty. An example of comedy would be in The Third Book of Impotence. The male model Nagiko has written her book on is running naked through the crowded streets of Hong Kong.

By writing her own pillow book, that will include thirteen editions, Nagiko will tell her life story. The last one is called The Book of the Dead, and is an example of how pitiless is her retribution.

The fun is in the silliness of the story’s subject matter as juxtaposed against the solemnity of the books being written on skin. In the background there are either somber religious chants or the same pop tune being played over and over. The repeating of the childhood story, the constant flashbacks to Nagiko’s childhood, where she is repeatedly told that the diary being read to her is by a woman who has the same name she has, gives the film a stylish depth and a feeling that something overwhelming is happening.

Greenaway tells a seductive tale by utilizing Nagiko’s predilection for body art to flesh out her character. She is really the only one in the film that we see developing. Her seventh book, The Book of a Seducer, was very similar to a Confucius book. She writes on a man’s bald head, “An itch to read, a scratch to understand.” Her ninth, The Book of Secrets, she has her words written on a man’s tongue. There seems to be a determined effort to be witty, even if the humor is not scaled to what the story is saying.

The result is a startling film with gorgeous photogenic shots, superimpositions, amazing computer graphics, a splash of intriguing gold and red color patterns, but with everything ending up so perverse and lost in a melodramatic intimacy that even the scenes that do mean something still seem to be too absurd to really mean much. But the film did have plenty of fire, hatred, passion, jealousy, and mystery. For those who like to see a film that is both unique and unforgettable: this one’s pure Greenaway.