REVIEW: The Pillow Book [1996]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 126 minutes | Release Date: November 8th, 1996 (UK)
Studio: C-Sales / Cinépix Film Properties
Director(s): Peter Greenaway
Writer(s): Peter Greenaway / Sei Shonagon (book)

“Itch to read. Scratch to understand.”

There aren’t many auteurs quite as inventively unique as Peter Greenaway and his “inspired by” adaptation of Sei Shonagon‘s The Pillow Book is a perfect example of why. Sexual explicitness and ink on flesh fetish aside, the sheer formal construction of the film puts it on a level all its own. Greenaway goes from black and white pasts to vibrantly colored presents, but as a demarcation of his lead character Nagiko’s (Vivian Wu) personal and emotional timeline rather than a generic linear one. He superimposes scenes upon scenes, layering lighted text atop imagery and imagery atop the written word of Shonagon’s iconic prose. Small windows of actions open up that differ from the larger frame and we watch this story unfold from three to five vantage points simultaneously.

And somehow it doesn’t prove distracting, instead making perfect sense. The Japanese on parchment from Shonagon tells us the words spoken are from literature, the small image showing a depiction of the words while the larger one Nagiko’s gaze of it. The repetition of her father’s (Ken Ogata) birthday tradition of painting her face to the story of clay humans come to life by the name of their creator tells us why she so craves the feel of brush on skin. She grows older and the tradition is upheld in monochrome, her newfound passion to discover a man able to satisfy both her carnal and literary/penmanship desires in color visually signifying her transition to womanhood. The acts are similar while the context is anything but.

There’s one more constant between youth and adulthood besides her penchant for feeling life through words drawn over her body and virtually absorbed into her soul and his name is Yaji-san (Yoshi Oida). This man was her father’s publisher as well as a lecherous blackmailer forcing him to engage in sexual favors to put his text in print. When Nagiko was young she couldn’t have known this arrangement—seeing them together, clothes disheveled or completely off nothing to think twice about until adolescence. Only then did she acknowledge what went on, but luckily for her it didn’t matter. She grew into a fashion model with money and time to facilitate her own sexual proclivities. But fate eventually brings him back to the forefront of consciousness.

Taking inspiration from the stories of Shonagon’s lady-in-waiting that her aunt read her, Nagiko never stopped keeping her own diaries while in turn honing her talents. It’s a prospective English lover named Jerome (Ewan McGregor) who changes everything in her life by turning the tables upon her rejecting him due to his bad handwriting. The times were different and her constant movement from Japan to China and abroad distanced her from the precise calligraphic abilities that so inspired and aroused her. So even though Jerome was attractive, knew four languages, and could write, he didn’t have the artistry necessary to put words on her body. Unwilling to simply accept her rejection, however, this gentleman lifts his shirt and asks her to show him how. Suddenly canvas becomes brush.

Long story short: Nagiko takes to writing on others like she used to make them do on her, friend/photographer/activist Hoki (Yutaka Honda) desperately seeks to become one of her muses and talks her into sending her text to a publisher for mass production, and Jerome ends up leaving said publisher’s office upon her arrival. Yes, Yaji-san is back in her life and this fact only makes the plot more complicated thanks to multiple relationships, misdirected anger, and original artistic outlet. What was a tale about a woman’s sexual and creative awakening suddenly transforms into a quest for vengeance and success. Nagiko now knows what she wants and it’s to write a thirteen-volume masterpiece with Jerome as her paper—living stories wiped away by water, personal and profoundly fleeting.

Let’s just say things don’t go quite as planned, a reality that allows Greenaway to delve deep into the darkness of his soul for the sexual danger he so wonderfully put onscreen with The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and The Draughtsman’s Contract. Skin becomes a specific source of utility wherein a new prerequisite must be met for Nagiko to take you into bed—flesh capable of holding her ink markings. Sex and words meld together in transparent montages of lust, intellect, and wit; bodies are flayed and dried into actual book pages for permanence; and language keeps everyone at an arm’s length. This latter fact is both frustrating and beautiful as I feel as though I only experienced sixty percent of what the story offers.

Subtitles aren’t a right of the viewer here—they’re a privilege. What occurs is a melting pot of cultures and languages, Nagiko’s own heritage split between Japan and China while her contemporary mind strives to cultivate English speech in an American accent. She brings life to the bodies she writes upon, signing her name and stamping her seal atop the black, red, and gold inks. She gives these men purpose and they comply fully with her wishes even when that means subjecting themselves to Yaji-san’s fury. This is the process of Nagiko finding love so her lists can more closely match Shonagon’s in optimism and positivity rather than annoyance. And when that love is lost her focus turns to rage, her cunning a perfect provider of psychological pain.

The Pillow Book becomes a wild adventure where visuals trump words despite a majority of the visuals consisting solely of words. It’s a coming-of-age tale for an artist finding her voice through the actions and pleasures of her soul. She’s demanding, but rightfully so— her mistrust of others proving crucial to survival once its absence exposes her wrath. Wu is captivating, alluring and dangerous as life and plans evolve in ways never imagined. McGregor is great as her lover, lost in sex’s power and distracted until it’s too late. But the real star is Greenaway’s singular style of pictures in pictures, panning projections, bold intertitles, and meticulously constructed segues. Whether subtitles translate or not, a universal truth is present if your eyes are open to find it.

[1] Love Letters (Ewan McGregor and Vivian Wu in THE PILLOW BOOK)
[2] Intimate Encounter (Vivian Wu in THE PILLOW BOOK)
[3] Alone (Vivian Wu in THE PILLOW BOOK)

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