88. THE PILLOW BOOK (1996)

“I am certain that there are two things in life which are dependable: the delights of the flesh, and the delights of literature.  I have had the good fortune to enjoy them both equally.”–Sei Shōnagon, “The Pillow Book,” Section 172.

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida

PLOT: Every birthday, Nagiko’s father draws calligraphic figures on her face while ritualistically reciting the story of creation. Nagiko grows into a beautiful young fashion model obsessed with the intersection of calligraphy and sex, seeking lovers who will use her naked body as a canvas on which to write. She meets and falls in love with a bisexual British translator who convinces her to write on others’ bodies, and together they conspire for revenge against the publisher who wronged her father.

Still from The Pillow Book (1996)


  • The “Pillow Book” from which the movie takes its title is “The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon,” the diaristic collection of anecdotes, observations, poetry and lists by a lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadako of Japan in the Heian era (the book was composed around 1000 AD).  Shōnagon’s work, though probably never intended for others’ eyes, became one of the classics of Japanese literature and a tremendous source of historical data about the Japanese imperial court.  Greenaway was inspired by “The Pillow Book,” but the film is not an adaptation of Shōnagon.  In an interview he explains: “I took some of [the book’s] sensitivities, primarily where Sei Shōnagon said, ‘Wouldn’t the world be desperately impoverished if we didn’t have literature and we didn’t acknowledge our own physicality?’ And the movie’s just about that.”
  • Occasionally, the spoken Japanese dialogue is not translated into subtitles. This is deliberate.
  • Venerable cinematographer Sacha Vierny had shot Greenaway’s previous six feature films and had previously worked with Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad), Buñuel (Belle de Jour) and Raoul Ruiz (The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, Three Crowns of the Sailor), among other notable (and weird) directors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are a bewildering number of nominees to choose from, especially since Greenaway frequently places two or three images on the screen at once, picture-in-picture style.  The overwhelming repeated image is that of writing inked on nude bodies, however, and so the shot of glowing letters cast on Vivian Wu’s darkened, reclining body as she writes in her diary in bed best captures The Pillow Book‘s visual fetish.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Pillow Book is a movie about a fetishistic, eccentric, obsessed

Trailer for The Pillow Book

character, brought to us by an auteur with firsthand knowledge of those qualities.  Greenaway splashes the screen with visual extravagances, with pictures framed inside of other pictures, and images layered on top of one another, melding one into the next.  Full of obscure musings about the nature of art and sex, The Pillow Book tells a story of lust and revenge, but subjugates the text to the image, the narrative to the cinematic.  The result is visually hypnotic, frequently frustrating, and all Greenaway.

COMMENTS: A man and woman make love.  The entwining limbs are spectral, as their passion is plays out as a semi-transparent overlay flickering over an erotic Japanese lithograph like a movie projected on a screen.  In a box in the lower center portion of the encompassing picture, more sketched figures run through a kama sutra of sexual positions in a shifting slideshow of classical erotica, while the subtitles of the sultry French love song roll across the very bottom of the screen.

It’s these dense, multilayered visual experiments—and not the dull storyline or esoteric symbolism—that provide the primary reason to peruse Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book.  Greenaway’s training as a painter pays off here, as he continues the revolutionary mise-en-scene he first developed in Prospero’s Books, one that stacks images on top of other images and while celebrating the nude human form.  Inspired by Eastern art, the compositions here are all carefully thought out, as intricately detailed as a classical Japanese woodblock print.

Greenaway uses some familiar cinema tricks, such as mixing color and black and white in the same shot—a scene in the beginning where Japanese characters painted on a young girls monochrome face start to glow blood red—and directly projecting images from a separate projector directly onto the actors and sets (in this case, usually unreadable text).  His primary innovation in The Pillow Book is his use of multiple scenes running in separate boxes on the main screen, an idea which seems to have been inspired equally by two new-in-1996 technologies: the picture-in-picture preview feature from television sets, and the multiple, movable frames of the Windows 95 operating system.  The technique is essentially an elaboration of the older split-screen format, but the freedom of being able to frame a second (or third, or fourth) image and position it anywhere on the screen is almost like adding another dimension to movies.  Sometimes Greenaway will use a second box to show the same action that’s occurring in the primary picture from another angle.  Sometimes he’ll show a completely different but thematically related scene (a historical flashback to Sei Shōnagon at the Imperial Heian Court in her layered silk robes and painted eyebrows, for example).  Sometimes he will simply have an abstract design playing in a postage-stamp sized square in the upper right hand corner of the frame.  One remarkable canvas is a moment when the “main” image with heroine Nagiko shows dimly through a reproduction of a page from the original “Pillow Book,” as if we’re peering at the action through a sheet of thin rice paper.  As Sei reads her list of “elegant things” we see each item (duck’s eggs, shaved ice in a silver bowl) appear in a crystal clear box the foreground.  Meanwhile, we observe the young Nagiko spying on her father as he humiliates himself before his publisher. There are three separate layers to this composite image, and the effect is stunning.  With so much going on all the time on screen, the eye never grows bored during The Pillow Book‘s two hour running time.

The experimental video presentation will confound conservative viewers, who may succumb to sensory overload causing them to label The Pillow Book “stupid,” “pretentious,” or even, in severe cases in susceptible populations, “gay.”  But avant-garde visuals aren’t the sole source of the movie’s weirdness.  The central premise—that a woman would become erotically obsessed with performing calligraphy on the human body—is obviously unreal and metaphorical, and square moviegoers will have a hard time connecting with it.  The story, while simple, is also confusingly told, with flashbacks and digressions to Sei Shōnagon’s famous lists of “things that make the heart beat faster.”  Greenaway is also fond of throwing in visual non-sequiturs: as Nagiko strolls through the Hong Kong airport, we get a sudden unexplained shot of a baby sleeping on a giant leaf.  Surrealistic pranks abound: a lovemaking/calligraphy session is interrupted by a gang of men dressed like ninjas, who seize the naked scribe and tie him to a chair, accusing him of being a graffiti vandal.  While Nagiko and Jerome make love in the bathtub, a maid stands in the background spinning plates on a long stick.  A middle-aged Asian man runs down Hong Kong streets in a diaper, with Japanese characters scrawled across his frame.  Human skin is flayed and literally made into a book.  Such things just don’t happen in a normal movie.

The Pillow Book is also thematically obscure.  It presents many dualities—male and female, the written word and the body, literature and the image—and molds them together.  By writing on flesh, inking books on human pages, Greenaway intends to reconcile the sensual and the literary.  But the film’s sympathies are strongly on the side of images, and its hard to discern any sort of actual argument about how this synthesis between the two different modes of aesthetic knowledge is supposed to occur.  Things are confused further by obscure symbolism.  Nagiko writes thirteen books on human bodies, with names such as “The Book of the Innocent,” “The Book of the Idiot,” “The Book of the Impotent,” and so forth, but we never get to actually read these books and understand how their titles are supposed relate to the movie’s theme (sometimes, they relate obviously to the plot, as is the case with “The Book of the Betrayed” or “The Book of the Dead.”)  The Pillow Book is definitely not an open book.

Vivian Wu plays the film’s only strongly defined character, but her performance does not bring Nagiko to life.  (Second banana Ewan McGregor does only a little better; he’s mostly notorious for The Pillow Book for his many full-frontal nude scenes, and his performance here reminds me of a vapid, Julian Sands-style pretty boy).  Asked to narrate much of the action, Wu seems to be aiming for a Merchant-Ivory level of literate gentility, but hitting something closer to the feigned elegance of an Emmanuelle softcore feature set in some exotic locale like the Greek islands.  In her defense, Greenaway has never been known as much of an actor’s director, and it’s hard to think of any outstanding performances in any of his films: they are remembered more for their visuals and outrageousness.  An intellectual filmmaker with a reputation (fair or unfair) for coldness, he’s not known for his abilities to tweak the audience’s emotions (except, perhaps, for eliciting occasional disgust).  I can’t help but imagine poor Wu, asked to pull up her blouse in an elevator so a stranger can ink some test characters on her belly and the underside of her breasts, asking the director “what’s my motivation in this scene?” and being met with an explanation like “in the 20th century… we’ve broken that magic connection [between body and writing] by this mechanical reproduction between the notion of physically making a mark that signifies.

The story of The Pillow Book, while somewhat interesting due to its unconventionality, is not a strong point, either.  The premise of the woman obsessed with erotic calligraphy is blatantly metaphorical, and Greenaway doesn’t really sell it as a story: Nagiko simply develops a sexual fetish from the annual birthday ritual her father performed on her, with no explanation how the ceremony’s religious significance turns into an Electra complex.  In the middle of the film, there’s a sudden reversal; Nagiko stops pleading for others to write upon her and starts seeking fulfillment by writing on others.  The symbolic significance of the shift is itself uncertain (Nagiko’s change from canvas to artist seems to mark a maturation of some sort), but as a species of character development, it really falls flat; the audience finds no identification with this psychological transformation whatsoever.  There’s a tragedy at the end of the second act that is implausible, either poorly motivated or poorly explained.  Even worse, it doesn’t feel particularly tragic; it only serves as a plot point to get rid of a character once he’s no longer needed.   It precipitates an ending that plays out as a rapid cascade of human books that somehow, in a way that’s only loosely conveyed to the audience, convinces the antagonist to repent and remove himself from the picture.  The story’s strange, all right, but it’s also schematic and doesn’t engage us on an emotional level. ‘

In interviews, Greenaway is hostile to the idea of narrative film, dismissing modern movies as merely “illustrated text” and saying that he would like to “proselytize for an autonomous cinema, which is essentially image-based, not text-based.” Yet, the feature films he makes, while they do tend to elevate imagery over plot, usually don’t dispense with conventional narratives.  (Arguably his most successful movie, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, also features his strongest storyline).  The literary inspiration for The Pillow Book, Sei Shōnagon’s jumbled collection of courtly anecdotes and miscellaneous observations, is ironically far more non-linear and non-narrative than Greenaway’s adaptation, which chains itself to Nagiko’s calligraphic obsession and marches chronologically forward from youth to wisdom.  I don’t share Greenaway’s ambivalence about narrative. A theoretically perfect movie would contain a powerful, moving narrative together with fascinating imagery.  But I wish in The Pillow Book he had committed fully one way or the other, either to a completely surrealistic, impressionistic feature, or to a movie with a strong allegorical plot.  By regarding the film’s plot as something of little importance, without abandoning it entirely, he splits The Pillow Book‘s baby, or at least seriously wounds it.

While The Pillow Book‘s muddled symbolism and weak plot and acting hold it back from an unconditional recommendation, it’s hard to stress enough that it is an amazing visual experience.  To my knowledge, Greenaway never mentions Kwaidan as an influence on this movie, but knowing his preference for the language of images to words, The Pillow Book might easily be seen as an extended visual riff on Kwaidan‘s “Hoichi the Earless” segment, with its monk covered from head to toe in Taoist characters.  At any rate, The Pillow Book is a sumptuous, sensual celebration of calligraphy, the nude human form, and the possibilities of video.  While The Pillow Book is worthwhile (and “accessible,” for a Greenaway movie), if you are interested in the style displayed here, I would recommend this film’s predecessor in the auteur’s canon, Prospero’s Books, a postmodern, all-nude adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” instead.  It features the same level and type of visual experimentation, but coupled with stronger story (can’t go wrong with Shakespeare), more (but less erotic) nudity, the dulcet tones of Sir John Gielgud, and is altogether a more provocative and challenging work than The Pillow Book.  Better yet, try them together as a double feature.  No matter what you think of either one, you’ll have to admit that not much else like them exists in the cinematic universe.


“…finds the filmmaker at his most atypically seductive, creating a spellbinding web of cruel elegance and intricate gamesmanship, exploring the exotic, haunting beauty of the bizarre.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“A muddled riot of ideas as Greenaway stretches his blurring metaphors and convoluted content to extremes.”–Leah Jewett, Empire

“A list of splendid reasons to watch THE PILLOW BOOK: for its beautiful images; for its power to send eyes, ears and brain spinning; for its moments of emotional warmth (more frequent than some of Greenaway’s other films); because it is extravagantly pretentious and unashamedly arty; because it is awesome, rich and strange.”–Julian Lim, “The Flying Inkpot”

IMDB LINK: The Pillow Book (1996)


Tama Leaver – The Pillow Book – Fan page with images, bibliography, and links to other web sites discussing Greenaway and The Pillow Book

Salon | Peter Greenaway | Flesh and Ink – Erudite interview with the director covering nudity, list-making, cinematic influences, and other Greenaway projects

Bomb Magazine: Peter Greenaway by Lawrence Chua – Another post-Pillow Greenaway interview, this time focusing on the director’s “anxiety or disenchantment” with narrative filmmaking

The body as parchment: Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book puts projections and lighting effects to calligraphic purpose – Interesting, if somewhat technical, description of the dramatic lighting effects used in The Pillow Book, from Live Design magazine

Fleshing the Text: Greenaway’s Pillow Book and the Erasure of the Body – This dry academic essay from Paula Willoquet-Maricondi, originally published in the January 1999 issue of “Postmodern Culture,” is recommended for Jacques Derrida fanboys only, although you may want to scroll down to the end of the essay for the transcription/translation of the Thirteenth Book


The Pillow Book -Greenaway’s (out of print) annotated, illustrated script contains many notes helpful to understanding his intent, including the full translated texts of all thirteen books

DVD INFO: For whatever reason, Peter Greenaway’s films, while remaining arthouse favorites, receive little respect on Region 1 DVD.  Sony’s treatment of The Pillow Book (buy) is no exception, although at least the film is in print.  The movie comes with no extras except for a trailer.  Of somewhat greater concern is the ominous warning that comes up when you press “play” on the DVD: “This film has been modified from its original version.  It has been formatted to fit your television.”  The small print on the back of the DVD case also gives fair warning: “This movie, while filmed in multi-aspect ratios, has been formatted to fit your TV.”  (How do those arrogant bastards presume to know how my TV is shaped?) Mondo-Digital, however, contends that the reformatting in this case is not as significant a problem as it might first appear, pointing out that the multiple aspect ratios used made the film a challenge to project in theaters, as well: “In theaters [The Pillow Book] was usually exhibited around 1.85:1, which lopped significant information off the top and bottom of many shots and even wiped out some of the lower subtitles in a few scenes. Things seemed to fare a bit better at first glance with its DVD editions, which were essentially open matte at 1.33:1…” I suppose there was a concern that presenting the film in the widest aspect ratio used might unintentionally result in shrinking some of the picture-in-picture scenes to such tiny dimensions that the viewer would have to sit right up against the TV and squint to make them out. Additionally, many of the main narrative sequences utilize only the top portion of the TV screen, and actually appear to be in the correct widescreen format. Supposedly, Greenaway supervised and approved the same transfer used here for the British video release. So, while I would prefer a reissue with the proper formatting, I can accept that The Pillow Book‘s transfer is not the notorious pan-and-scan hack job that was perpetrated on Propsero’s Books VHS release.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Lili,” who called it a “very bizarre film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

5 thoughts on “88. THE PILLOW BOOK (1996)”

  1. Its not really possible to ‘like’ Greenaway, you stand back in stunned admiration of the sheer craftsmanship that goes into every frame of his moving art museum pieces, but they are usually far too detached & chilly to approach in the usual way. He’s the very defintion of acquired taste.

    I would love to have dvds of The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover & Prospero’s Books. Pausing each frame from the later especially would be fantastic, theres so much detail jam packed into each scene in that movie it would take a lifetime to digest it all. I have to watch the fuzzy videotape version i have in segments, its simply too much to take in for just one sitting.

    Most people should probably start & stop with The Cook, though. I can’t imagine non film nerds sitting still for one of Greenaway’s more obscure experiments in WTF-ery.

  2. ‘A theoretically perfect movie would contain a powerful, moving narrative together with fascinating imagery.’

    How ‘Weird’.

    Michael Bay is, by this rubric, more fitting for this list than Peter Greenaway. Weird.

  3. As for not liking Greenaway, the list of people who find A Zed and Two Noughts a hilarious and touchingly beautiful story is long. The number of people who find Prospero’s Books to be the most amazing film they’ve ever seen numbers at least one. And we’re still in amongst my 20 favorite films ever made. I could keep going. I guess I don’t really ‘like’ him, though, I love him with every fiber of my being.

  4. Jocko, you’ve got the point! 100% 🙂

    When I watched the movie first, it ended and I sat back absolutely motionless, wordless. Even with no thought in my mind. Detached is the right word, Jocko. Later as if gaining my conscience I reached for the key to rewind it, but stopped. I did wanted and didn’t to watch it again….

    Thank you for your essay that brought me back to the moments of strange, weird mixed feelings of love and hatred. Which happens to be not so rare.

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