Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Peter Greenaway, 1996
Starring: Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida, Ken Ogata

I passionately love Peter Greenaway. A lot of his earlier films are on my list of favorites, particularly
The Draughtsman's Contract, A Zed and Two Nought, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. While The Pillow Book doesn't quite fit into this category, it's still a solid entry in Greenaway's canon.

The half-Chinese, half-Japanese Nagiko (Wu) was raised in a traditional Japanese family, where she was expected to be a submissive young woman, marry, and effectively transfer ownership of herself from her father to her husband. Early on, her artist father instilled a deep love of calligraphy in her, so deep a love that it has become more of a sexual fetish than an artistic appreciation. Under her aunt's influence, she also develops a love of pleasure and begins keeping a diary of her lovers, known as a pillow book, which is based on
Makura no Soshi (translated as Pillow Book), the famous diary kept by eleventh century Japanese court lady Sei Shonagon. Basically a pillow book is a poetic collection of notebooks that details a person's private life and, in the case of Shonagon, develops into an interesting and pertinent historical document.

When Nagiko openly fights with her husband, he discovers, reads and destroys her pillow book, prompting her to leave him and her traditional life forever. She moves to Hong Kong and supports herself by becoming a secretary, then a model, known for her beauty, free spirit, bad temper, and love of calligraphy. Soon Nagiko meets Jerome (McGregor), a beautiful, multi-lingual British translator. She dares him to write on her body, but he does a poor job. Nonplussed, Jerome challenges her to write on his body, but she balks and walks out. She is intrigued despite herself and begins to incorporate this into her sexual affairs. A Japanese photographer, Hoki, becomes infatuated with her. Though she refuses to take him as a lover, he convinces her to explore the possibility that she should compose a novel, though it later gets rejected by a publisher. Angrily determined, Nagiko discovers that Jerome is the publisher's lover and assistant. She seduces him, but quickly develops feelings for him. Jerome's calligraphy and language skills have improved and Nagiko realizes she has found a perfect match. She tells Jerome the truth and he is delighted to help her get published.

At this point the film splits into a series of chapters, one for every chapter of her book, which Jerome decides will be written out on his skin and then sent to the callous publisher. He is delighted and has her unique, beautiful book copied out and published. He demands a few nights of pleasure from Jerome as part of the deal, but when Jerome loses track of time and doesn't return to Nagiko when promised, she takes it as an extreme betrayal. She begins to write the next few books on other men, which makes Jerome insanely jealous. She refuses to see him or speak to him. Hoki suggests that he fake his own death, a la Romeo and Juliet, to spark Nagiko's interest and frighten her. Hoki gives him some pills and he stages a dramatic scene at her home. He begins to write a long letter to her and loses track of the pills he has taken: one for every page.

When she returns home, ready to forgive him, it is too late. Jerome has overdosed and Nagiko is devastated. She writes the sixth book, The Book of the Lovers, on his dead body. After his funeral, the publisher has him secretly exhumed and flayed, so he can create a pillow book from Jerome's skin.* She is horrified and becomes determined to possess the book. Still an anonymous author, she offers to trade the publisher the missing books for Jerome's skin. He agrees and a series of messengers, all bearing more artistically dramatic versions of the books, appear to him. Meanwhile, Nagiko realizes she is pregnant with Jerome's child. In the thirteenth and final book, she reveals her identity and accuses the publisher of his many crimes, including those against her father, her Japanese husband who he influenced and corrupted, and Jerome. Deeply shamed, he gives her the pillow book and kills himself. Nagiko buries Jerome under a bonsai tree and gives birth to their child.

There are a lot of beautiful things about The Pillow Book. The obsession with writing, beauty, books, and pleasure all struck a chord with me. The love for and expression of eroticism trails throughout Greenaway's films and is the main focus of many of them. I also enjoyed the artful, diverse use of language. Most of the characters are multi-lingual and explore their identities by using different written and spoken languages. It is appropriate that the film is set in Hong Kong, as it geographically unites the merging of Nagiko's Chinese and Japanese body with Jerome's British one, as well as the love both have for the exploration of multiple cultures and languages.

I really did enjoy this film, but it is deeply flawed. Greenaway simply tries to do too many things at once and the story would be better serviced in a mixed media style novel rather than a film. He tries to incorporate the art of Japanese calligraphy, which takes enough time to explain, as well as the history of Sei Shonagon and Makura no Soshi, which provides a critical current for the film and Nagiko's personal development and goals. The Hong Kong photography and modeling world is another backdrop, as well as books, writing, and the publishing world. All of these are critical to the film, but the plot is slowed to a crawl by constant exposition.

Greenaway also treads some dangerous ground with his wanton mixing of Asian culture and iconography, leaping back and forth between Japanese and Chinese imagery. Though I haven't read a lot of academic criticism of this film, I can see the giant, red danger light it will likely set off for many film scholars. A white, British director writing a film about a Chinese-Japanese woman is a little risky and he doesn't handle it as well as he could. Casual audiences will likely not care about this, but the level of exoticism is distracting, particularly when he uses long segments early in the film to do strange montages of Asian cultural imagery.

The plot is also needlessly complicated and meandering. I enjoy his frequent rejection of strict narrative structure, but I think it would be better served with a much shorter introduction. The core of the film is Nagiko's relationship with Jerome, the sexualized calligraphy, and the series of dramatic events that occur around the books she is writing. How she gets to this point is important, but doesn't need the drawn out opening sequence it is given. The narration is also tedious. It gives the film a diary-like quality that I love and appreciate, but there is rather a lot of narration and a lot of exposition. Character is another issue. What I can't stand about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is the same thing I hate about The Pillow Book. Selfish characters make stupid mistakes, turning a simple situation into a ridiculously dramatic one, which makes the potential tragedy seem more like a farce. In some ways Nagiko and Jerome are able to transcend the spoiled, selfish teenage tropes that Romeo and Juliet embody and these are the best parts of the film.

Greenaway, even at his most masturbatory and pretentious, always makes me think critically about the use of certain themes in film and in my own life. I think he beautifully captures the selfish impulse of artistic and intelligent people that, though dramatized in a work of fiction, also exists in real life. Because Nagiko initially is different and doesn't adapt to socially prescribed roles, she gains a level of self-preservation that evolves into utter selfishness and keeps her disconnected from real emotional relationships, at least until she meets Jerome. Jerome, unfortunately, is mostly a cipher for Nagiko's character development. His own selfishness, drama, and need for attention is his downfall and gives him an element of complexity. Nagiko is able to spin his needless destruction and her deep grief to a positive conclusion that constructively changes her life and the lives of people around her. Though there is no way I find the publisher's suicide believable.

The film is visually beautiful and worth watching because of the lovely imagery and direction. Though the soundtrack has a very '90s feel, I also enjoyed it and thought it was perfect for the film. I generally like Vivian Wu, but she was flat in this role, though that is probably the fault of the writing. Ewan McGregor, young, beautiful, and fearless, was a joy to watch, as always. I'm reviewing the Sony single-disc DVD, which, as far as I know, is the only one available in region 1. Greenaway's work is difficult to find for American audiences, though Zeitgeist has happily been changing that in the last two years. Film connoisseurs and collectors will likely be annoyed by the changing image size, which is due to the fact that the film was shot in different aspect ratios. Regular genre fans and more conventional film viewers will also probably be thrown by the constantly changing languages - English, Japanese, Chinese, French, etc. But if you can't keep up with the language changes, this is probably not a film for you in the first place.

*A note on skin flaying. This needs a certain amount of explanation for Western audiences. Skin flaying, particularly anthropodermic bibliopegy, the practice of making books from human skin, has long been associated with the worst kind of punishment in the West. Flaying was a way of taking war trophies from defeated foes and was a common punishment for traitors in medieval and early modern France. Foucault's wonderful Discipline and Punish talks about this happening up to the eighteenth century. Everyone has heard of the rumored lampshades and books the Nazis made from some of their Jewish victims. This has a different connotation in Japanese history. Flaying has never been a popular means of capital punishment. Irezumi, a specific type of Japanese tattooing, usually done by hand instead of machine, is paradoxically considered a serious art form that has well-established masters, but is currently associated with the yakuza. It has had different fads in Japanese society, starting out as a means of punishment, but was briefly popular in the Imperial court for decoration or between lovers. Irezumi, in the elaborate form we now know it, developed in the Edo period and gradually became a traditional art form. It isn't a terribly common practice, but throughout the last few centuries a number of these tattoos have been preserved, collected and displayed by irezumi masters and members of the Japanese aristocracy. It's exactly how it sounds. Dead men are flayed, which is apparently another old Japanese art that has been passed down to doctors by word of mouth, and their beautifully tattooed skin is preserved and framed for private collections. Currently Tokyo University's medical museum has the largest collection of these, though I'm pretty sure it is not open to the public. On the other hand, if you want to see some books bound in human skin, you can visit University of Pennsylvania's rare books library, though I believe you need an appointment. If you're travelling in New England, they have a sizable collection at Brown and a few at Harvard.

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