The Pillow Book by Peter Greenaway is a typical Greenaway blend of the bizarre, the disgusting and the boring. Especially the boring. You wouldn’t think it, would you? That a man could concentrate so exclusively on weird sexual fetishes (in this case, a woman’s desire to have her body written on — and then to write on other bodies), naked bodies, dead bodies, blackmail, sexual predation and other such subjects and somehow manage to make the whole thing excruciatingly boring? The film is just over two hours long, but it seems like two weeks. I don’t know, maybe people who are fetishists of one kind or another themselves — or else who are Japanese calligraphers — would find this picture less boring than I did, but even they, one supposes, must grow impatient with the increasingly improbable story on which a succession of pretty, oriental-style pictures are made to hang.
Nagiko (Vivian Wu) is the daughter of a Japanese writer/calligrapher (the distinction between the two is almost always blurred here, so that calligraphy is made to stand for art in a wider sense) played by Ken Ogata and a Chinese mother. Every year on her birthday when she is a little girl, her father draws ideograms on her face and back and there is a little ritual chant about how God made his first clay model of a human being and painted in the eyes and the mouth and wrote the person’s name — “lest she ever forget it.” Then, if He liked his handiwork, He would sign his own name and so bring it to life.
This ritual is deeply impressive to the young girl, as his her mother’s reading to her from the “Pillow Book” of a 10th century courtesan who shares the name of Nagiko. This book seems to consist of a list of “elegant things” or “splendid things” or “things that make the heart beat faster.” Using an almost continual split screen technique, Greenaway is forever illustrating these tropes as they are mentioned, sometimes working them into the narrative framework and sometimes leaving them outside it. Later, when she comes to make her own pillow book, Nagiko includes negative lists— “things that irritate”—as well.
She realizes on one of these childhood birthdays, that that day is also the day that her father’s publisher (Yoshi Oida) comes to call, calmly buggers the old man, and walks away, leaving a wad of banknotes behind. This appears to be a matter of blackmail—or so the daughter presumes. Later she grows up and marries but leaves her husband, an archery fanatic, after he burns her manuscripts. She moves to Hong Kong, becomes a model and starts her “search for the ideal lover-calligrapher.”
In Hong Kong she meets a British translator called Jerome (Ewan McGregor) who speaks four languages but is not a calligrapher. Instead, he invites her to write on him. Use my body like the pages of a book,” he tells her. As the calligrapher’s brush has already been compared to a penis, the reversal of sexual roles is clear. “This is where I begin to do the writing. I’m going to be the pen, not just the paper,” says Nagiko. In fact, she becomes so fond of writing she is persuaded that she ought to publish.
Well what do you think? Turns out that old Jerome is the paper not only for her but for the very same publisher who spent all those years buggering her dad! Her idea had been to seduce the old man, but he is obviously not that way inclined. Well, she decides, “if I can’t seduce the publisher, perhaps I could seduce the publisher’s lover.” She sends her writings to him on the body of Jerome, their shared lover.
The publisher, who had previously sent her a curt rejection letter, is suddenly enthralled with Nagiko’s writings, and orders transcribers to take them down every time Jerome shows up covered in calligraphy. Symbolically, we are seeing beauty and power competing on the battleground of sex, but Greenaway doesn’t appear to have very much to say on the subject — except that beauty is mostly good and power is mostly bad. Moreover, the preposterousness of the story — and it becomes much, much more preposterous as it goes on from here — seems to me a lapse of taste to outweigh and render merely grotesque the beauties, such as they are, of the film’s photography and design.