When God made the first clay model of a human being, he painted in the eyes, the lips and the sex. And then he painted in each person's name lest the person should ever forget it. If God approved of the creation, he brought the painted clay model into life by signing his own name.
These words from the Japanese creation myth are repeated frequently throughout Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book. We hear them most often during some of the film's early scenes, as a young Japanese girl named Nagiko (Miwako Kawai) celebrates a series of birthdays. On these special occasions, Nagiko's father (Ken Ogata, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) – a professional writer - paints elegant calligraphy on his daughter's face and neck, while Nagiko's aunt reads selections from Sei Shonagon's 10th century Japanese diary The Pillow Book. Nagiko cultivates a deep appreciation for this unusual form of flesh-writing. She also learns that her father is a deeply troubled man, forced to provide sexual favors to a corrupt publisher (Yoshi Oida) in order to have his work published.
When Nagiko reaches adulthood (and is played by Vivian Wu, The Last Emperor), the publisher forces Nagiko's father to arrange a marriage between Nagiko and the publisher's apprentice (Ken Mitsuishi, The Thin Red Line). Unfortunately, the apprentice has little appreciation for Nagiko's personal tastes – he refuses to write on her body, and treats her with little respect. Nagiko flees, vowing that she will eventually find the ultimate “calligrapher-lover” (though she'll encounter quite a few men who are only good at one or the other until she gets there).
The story unfolds slowly during the film's first hour – perhaps to give the viewer time to grow accustomed to the striking visuals on display. I'm not exaggerating when I say that The Pillow Book is one of the most visually ambitious films I've ever seen. There are a dizzying number of experimental techniques on display, as Greenaway changes aspect ratios (all within the confines of a classical 1.33:1 box), applies all sorts of unusual overlays, allows song lyrics to float across the screen, uses all sorts of filters, plays around with picture-in-picture images, uses various forms of split-screen, etc. It's almost impossible to absorb everything on the screen in a single viewing.
The audio is nearly as ambitious, cycling through a handful of eclectic soundtrack cues (traditional Japanese music, a U2 song, Buddhist chants, classical pieces) and repeating them over and over and over again until they eventually become a form of narrative shorthand. Greenaway also playfully drops the English-language subtitles at certain points, and significantly alters the English translation of multiple languages at others. At times, you get the feeling that a master's degree in The Cinema of Peter Greenaway would be required in order to achieve a full understanding of the movie.
That being said, I can't help but feel that the film's audiovisual fireworks are partially an effort to distract us from the fact that the narrative is incredibly silly. As the film shifts into its second half, it unveils the story of Nagiko's attempt to publish a book on the bodies of naked men. She makes love to them, writes on them and sends them off to the publisher. The publisher quickly brings his employees into the room and has them hastily transcribe the flesh-painted text. I'm not sure why no one thought to use a photographer – a picture book would certainly sell better than the text-only version, and photographs would certainly make the transcription process less stressful for everyone – but this film has little interest in realism. If we're being charitable, we could say that it takes place in a romantic, purely literary reality. If we're being less kind, we might say that it tends to disappear up its own calligraphy-laced posterior.
The film turns increasingly sensationalist, lurid and violent as it proceeds – the third act is basically an endless parade of penises and bloodshed – but Greenaway fails to capture the sort of mortifying-but-inevitable descent into hell that he so memorably presented in the later stages of his masterful The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. I think it's partially because that film had such rich, memorable characters, and this one is mostly filled with one-note types and indistinct ciphers. It's hard to get much of a read on the character Wu is playing. She certainly looks striking in all her calligraphy-clad glory, but there are too many moments in which Greenaway seems to be using her as a model rather than as a character.
The most interesting figure is Jerome (Ewan McGregor, Big Fish), a friendly, bisexual Englishman whose considerable lovemaking abilities stand in sharp contrast with his embarrassingly poor calligraphy. “You're not a writer, you're a scribbler!” Nagiko scoffs. Their relationship initially seems ill-fated, but it turns out that Jerome has professional connections Nagiko finds useful. He has little knowledge of the dark path he's being led down – what begins as pleasant blend of writing and sex eventually transforms into something heartbreaking. The extended sequence in which Jerome concocts an ill-advised plan to earn Nagiko's sympathy is the film's saddest and most effective sequence.
To say this isn't a film for everyone is an understatement. This isn't a film for most people. The film is unrated, but it's easily in NC-17 territory. Beyond the explicit content, it's a dense, challenging work that moves at a remarkably slow pace for much of its running time and engages in a series of maddeningly repetitive aesthetic experiments (I don't think I'll ever listen to the film's soundtrack on its own, as I'm already tired of almost all of those selections). Still, I've give Greenaway this: I'm not likely to forget The Pillow Book anytime soon. I found much of it rather frustrating, but there's never been another film quite like it. The director deemed this idea worthy of life, and his signature is unmistakable.
The Pillow Book
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Year: 1996