Pillow Book (1996): Peter Greenaway’s Erotic Drama

One of Peter Greenaway’s better and more accessible films, The Pillow Book is an intriguing erotic drama, starring Vivian Wu as Nagiko, a Japanese model, seeking pleasure and new experiences from her various lovers.

The film world premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.

The film is a melding of dark modern drama with idealised Chinese and Japanese cultural themes and settings, and centres on body painting.

The title, “The Pillow Book,” refers to an ancient Japanese diary written by Sei Shōnagon (believed to be Kiyohara Nagiko).

The film is narrated by Nagiko, a Japanese born model living in Hong Kong. Nagiko seeks a lover who can match her desire for carnal pleasure with her admiration for poetry and calligraphy. The roots of this obsession lie in her youth in Kyoto, when her father would write characters of good fortune on her face.

Nagiko’s father celebrates her birthday retelling the Japanese creation myth and writing on her flesh in beautiful calligraphy, while her aunt reads a list of “beautiful things” from Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book. Nagiko’s aunt tells her that when she is twenty-eight years old, the official book of observations will be officially 1000 years old, and that she, Nagiko, will be the same age as Sei Shōnagon when she had written the book (in addition to sharing her first name). Nagiko also learns around this time that her father is in thrall to his publisher, “Yaji-san,” who demands sexual favors from her father in exchange for publishing his work.

Visually, Greenaway relies on elaborate title cards and superimposed images, with a variety of music pieces (U2 songs and traditional Asian music), turning the film into an original meditation on art, literature and the human body.