“The Pillow Book”
Sensual and Erotic
To describe “The Pillow Book” is a very difficult task. Is it exotic or is it erotic or maybe both? It is sensual, delicate and beautiful. The music is mysterious and the cinematography is stunning.
As a young girl in Japan, Nagiko’s father paints characters on her face. Her aunt reads to her from “The Pillow Book” which was the diary of a lady-in-waiting during the tenth century. As Nagiko grows up she is obsessed with papers, books, and writings. Her sexual odyssey (and her own “Pillow Book”) is a combination of modern Chinese, classical Japanese and Western film images.
At the beginning of the movie we see a little girl being written upon by her father. We then shift to see the girl as an adult who s looking for lovers who will write on her body once again. She meets a bisexual Englishman who also enjoys being written upon and she learns that he was once the former lover of a man who had once betrayed her father.
This is one of those rare films that transcend the limitations of film and text and this is probably due to its handling by Peter Greenaway. The movie is loosely based on writings from the tenth century of the imperial court observer, Sei Shonagon. Greenaway brings a visual feast to the screen that uses stunning sets and the physical beauty of actors Vivian Wu and Ewan McGregor as well as the ancient and modern writing systems that are known as the art of calligraphy.
What Greenaway does so brilliantly is to incorporate art, numbers, books and architecture into film. As a young child Nagiko celebrated her birthday by having her father write the story of creation on her face. With adulthood and marriage, her husband was neither interested nor did he want to continue this tradition. When she becomes frustrated that she cannot find a lover who is also a good calligrapher, she finally meets a bisexual translator, Jerome (McGregor). Who offers himself to her as a living canvas for her erotic creativity. Nagiko is inspired by the chance to get revenge on a publisher who had once blackmailed her father when she learns that Jerome’s lover is the very same man. She creates the ultimate love poem which she illuminates in red, gold and black characters and delivers it to the publisher on Jerome’s naked body.
This s pure visual eroticism and the story revels in the binaries of both the profane and the grotesque but it also is a delight for the eye in the way that Greenaway is able to translate a vision of both love and horror in a single statement of pure physical beauty and very passionate sexuality. Sometimes the beauty of the film detracts from the ability to concentrate on what is actually happening. Vivian Wu as Nagiko is very good and so is McGregor. This is quite a different role than he usually plays but he does a good job—and he also looks good naked. His character is innocent and gullible while Nagiko is very strong and overpowering.
As a film “The Pillow Book” is an erotic masterpiece. It unravels like a scroll and it teases and excites with floating images. Our attention is captured from the very start and our emotions are toyed with. Watching this film is an experience for the senses in which the ending is beautifully done. You will feel enchanted, perhaps even hypnotized by the film and if you like sensual eroticism, this is the film to see.