“How can I get pleasure writing on you? You have to write on me.” Presented with Jerome’s bare chest, Nagiko’s brash confidence folds. Her proclivities are strange, but to her the rules are clear: calligraphy and sex go hand in hand. To truly be satisfied, she must have both calligrapher and lover; she must be both paper and woman. When Jerome challenges that process, it offends her. She leaves; he laughs at her.
Alone that evening, Nagiko stands in front of her mirror, and takes her calligraphy brush to her own skin. Something new is born within her.
The 1996 film The Pillow Book was inspired by the 10th-century diary of Sei Shōnagon, a courtier to the Empress Consort Teishi. Set in the late 1990s, the film’s heroine Nagiko feels a kinship to Shōnagon that spans their thousand-year divide. The premise of Peter Greenaway’s film is one that I haven’t had luck explaining to others. “She gets pleasure from men writing calligraphy on her,” I say, but even as I say it I know that’s an over-simplification; this isn’t just a body-writing fetish, but also art and activism and authorship. To add to a rare sexual preference, boundaries of form and culture build barriers to the film. It’s not one that is particularly friendly to its viewers, just as Nagiko is not particularly friendly to her lovers nor to her pages. But as Nagiko dives deeper into art, calligraphy, love, and revenge, the film’s use of process teaches the viewer how to understand not only the film, but Nagiko’s own fascination.
The Pillow Book starts with a ceremony. The throaty chant of Buddhist monks plays through the opening titles, eventually giving way to the opening scene. It’s filmed in black and white, with a film texture and camera angle reminiscent of Yasujirō Ozu. A 4-year-old Nagiko sits pleased and still as her father writes a birthday greeting on her face, repeating a creation myth as he does:
When God made the first clay model of a human being, He painted in the eyes, the lips, and the sex. Then He painted each person’s name lest the owner should ever forget it. If God approved of His creation, He brought the painted clay model into life by signing His own name.
With that final phrase, her father signs his name across the nape of her neck. This process is played out in its entirety, patiently observed before ushering in the cool narration of the adult Nagiko. The moment is sacred and pivotal, tied to the most important events in Nagiko’s life. When, as a teenager, that process is interrupted, it’s a moment so sacrilegious and defiling that it fuels a desire for revenge that follows Nagiko into adulthood.
Process is not an idea typically explored in traditional narrative film. Early on in learning about film history, I was taught the genesis of a universal film language. The Lumières captured life on film. Georges Méliès used tricks to create fantastic jumps, people appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. Then, D.W. Griffith’s films accustomed audiences to cross-cutting, eliminated repetitive elements in film, and set the foundation for an institutional mode of representation. As continuity editing became the primary mode of editing communication, time became more malleable, more easily compressed—no longer was there a need to show the rocket landing multiple times in A Trip to the Moon, because the audience now understood the shorthand.
When subsequently formalizing film as an art, theorists and critics worked to establish the difference between film as a technology and film as an artistic medium. Or, the difference between recording and portraying reality versus “free creations,” as Siegfried Kracauer described. He concluded that, despite artistry shown in non-fiction films such as Nanook of the North and Joris Ivens’ Rain, they were not as artistically viable as narrative films that are more “independent of nature.” This was in many ways an expansion on the concepts of “the dynamization of space” and the “spatialization of time” in Erwin Panofsky’s 1934 essay. To both Panofsky and Kracauer, the portrayal of real-life process was documentation rather than art.
Whether due to a lack of “free creation,” or an audience’s familiarity with the institutional mode of representation, process is not something found in most films. Film, as art, is not a how-to manual. One of the medium’s most utilized gifts is its ability to contract time; processes and procedures are collapsed via montage so often it’s a stereotype. Screenwriting books teach impressionable writers not to start a scene too early or end a scene too late, and the very idea of what is cinematic and what is not often hinges on attention span.
Of course, rules were made to be broken, and many films do view process as the “thing” rather than “the thing that gets us to the thing.” Think, for example, of the final scene in Big Night, where the camera remains stationary as the brothers share breakfast in an act of forgiveness. Given the lack of camera movement and editing in this scene, it does not fulfill the characterizations of film-as-art as outlined by Kracauer and Panofsky. But the scene is effective; the rhythm of habit and process comforting. In many ways, process is more universal than story.
It’s undeniable that Nagiko’s desire to be adorned with calligraphy is tied to her relationship with her father. As she grows up, she tries to recreate the ceremony and process of their birthday ritual, attempting to make it sacred in a way that she only believed it was.
The truth is that the ritual was always sullied. Every year on Nagiko’s birthday, her father’s publisher would show up, ready to claim sex—he only published her father’s books if he received sex from him in return. Between cracked screens to hushed voices, the transactional sex act between the publisher and her father mars Nagiko’s experience and intertwines calligraphy and sex in her mind. In her brief marriage, arranged by the publisher, she attempts to get her husband to perform the birthday writing ritual, but he rejects her outright. He calls the practice childish. His venomous hatred for the written word poisons their marriage, and when he finds Nagiko’s diary—her own pillow book—he sets it ablaze, burning down their house and effectively ending their marriage as Nagiko runs away. The birthday greeting and recitation of the creation myth is never perfectly performed until later, when Nagiko is with Jerome.
The idea of a “Pillow Book” comes from the 10th century writer Sei Shōnagon. As a diary, it was never meant for others to read, but its contents proved precious enough to last over a thousand years. Nagiko’s aunt reads from it, reciting one of the many lists Shōnagon made, and eventually encouraging Nagiko to write down her own. The prominence of lists is notable, emphasizing the fact that a diary is not a narrative. Writing for oneself often does away with time, as one’s words betray the overlapping of one’s thoughts. “Isn’t that why people keep diaries? To be read by someone else? Otherwise, why keep them?” Nagiko’s husband says as they argue. “To know about themselves,” she responds. Unlike other works of writing, where the intended purpose is the finished product, a diary is an imprint of a process. Its unfiltered thoughts, merely evidence of an act rather than a product itself. For Nagiko, her writing is about the ritual, process, and delivery of calligraphy—similar to how Jackson Pollock’s paintings are the evidence of artistic trance.
Nagiko’s full name is Nagiko Yujikino, but when her father paints her name on her face, he paints “Nagiko Kiyohara No Motosuke Sei Shōnagon,” the same names some scholars believe belonged to Sei Shōnagon. With this, the film sets up a sort of cosmic bond between Nagiko and Shōnagon. Early in the film, an image of Shōnagon’s face fades away to reveal the adult Nagiko’s, right before the film transitions into a flashback of Nagiko’s childhood. There, her aunt tells her about Sei Shōnagon, how she kept a pillow book, and how, when Nagiko is 28 years old, that book will be 1,000 years old. On a later birthday, Nagiko starts her own diary, eager to write the story of her life.
But her pillow book doesn’t tell the story she hoped for. “I confided in my own pillow book more and more frequently,” Nagiko says after her marriage. “Like the pillow book of Sei Shōnagon, it was full of lists. Unlike Sei Shōnagon, all the lists were negative.” After her husband burns down their life together, Nagiko escapes to Hong Kong. She learns how to type, but it’s an empty process for her. Practicing her birthday tradition with a typewriter is impossible, though she desperately tries to stamp the typed figures on her skin. She gives up writing for herself, and instead seeks to be the paper. So begins her search for a lover-calligrapher.
Director Peter Greenaway once said “I don’t want to be a filmmaker. I think painting is far more exciting and profound.” Art of other mediums is thoroughly ingrained into his work, gleefully disobeying the theories set out by Facauer and Panofsky. In The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, he borrows from theater, utilizing deep sets, lateral camera movement, and theatrical lighting, even beginning and ending with opening and closing of curtains. But if The Cook, The Thief is theater, then The Pillow Book is collage. Greenaway trades cavernous space and theatrical light for layered images that are pointedly two-dimensional for the three-dimensional medium of film. As Nagiko recalls her experiences via voiceover, the images that appear are often laced over with calligraphy, images, and windows of other scenes—either flashbacks or, often, similar moments from different perspectives, filmed mere seconds before or after the main image. If The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover is Brechtian, then The Pillow Book is a painting by Mark Rothko, dependent on its many layers to communicate the meaning of its abstract imagery.
Greenaway says that narrative is a crutch for film, and has aimed to create a more purely visual iteration of the medium. Like Nagiko, he found himself fascinated by calligraphy and its dual purpose. In calligraphy, the characters become more than words, but images—paintings—in and of themselves. He reinforces this idea by consistently showing the written word on-screen, not just through the body writing, but through images of calligraphy, and even ornate subtitles, which occasionally play across the screen like ribbons. Watching the layers of film and text build is much like the calligraphy itself: it is both language and image, an imprint of a moment rather than a tool for story.
While The Pillow Book is told mostly chronologically, it’s rare that the images themselves follow the rules of time. The film is edited in a series of extreme fades, moments leaving their stamps on the ones that follow. The result, enhanced by an often stark production design, is an abstraction of the time Nagiko is narrating. When Nagiko and Jerome make love, the moment is layered with calligraphy, patterned lighting, and images of historical art depicting sex. By never fully allowing beginning or ending, and by breaking with the institutional mode of representation, the audience is forced into the current moment, reflecting the very philosophy of the eastern culture it’s showing by creating something meditative and present. The process of the images appearing and disappearing is the very thing the audience is called to pay attention to.
Nagiko herself revels in the sacrifice of time to process. After leaving her husband, she finds work in Hong Kong as a model, and describes a night when they performed a show at a temple. “We didn’t finish walking the catwalk until midnight, when all the audience had gone,” she says. “Sei Shōnagon had watched the moon rise in that garden a thousand years ago. I could have walked up and down that path all night long.” It frustrates her when her lovers or friends do not appreciate her artistic process the way that she does: “They were often easily distracted,” she says, pondering whether or not she should give up her search for a lover-calligrapher altogether.
Jerome is an Englishman—a translator living in Hong Kong and reveling in its multiculturalism. At the Cafe Typo, Nagiko tests him. “Take out your pen and, please, write your name on my arm.” She isn’t pleased with the results, but despite having been brusque and decisive with her other potential lover-calligraphers, she gives him another chance, and then another. Jerome is a translator, not a calligrapher. “You’re not a writer!” Nagiko exclaims. “This is not writing, it’s scribbling! Distasteful scribbling.” But he doesn’t back away. Instead, he pulls up his shirt, revealing his naked torso. “You could show me,” he says. “Use my body like the pages of a book. Of your book.”
At this point, Nagiko has no book of her own. Nagiko refuses to continue with Jerome, but his words have an impact, and throw her into an unknown world where she is “the pen, not just the paper.” For the first time since her husband burned her pillow book, she writes for herself. Nagiko declares she could have walked the moonlit catwalk all night long, and when she first begins her foray into “being the pen,” she displays the same patience and love for practice and process. As Nagiko writes, she falls not just for calligraphy but for a lover. The patiently portrayed process teaches the audience to understand her love for both.
A quote ascribed to Sei Shōnagon is that “skin smells like paper,” and that the two great joys of her life are “literature” and “flesh.” For Nagiko, they are all the same thing.
She writes her first piece on a foreign stranger, enlisting the help of an activist photographer she knows, Hoki, to document her work. The photographer has scribes copy her work and sends it to a publisher. The publisher rejects it outright, saying it’s “Not worth the paper it’s written on.” Ironic, of course, since the true paper was flesh and not paper at all. Nagiko, offended, goes to confront the publisher. She waits outside of his office, planning on seducing him in order to get what she wants.
However, when the publisher exits his office, she realizes he is the very publisher who blackmailed and abused her father. Not only that, but it appears he’s just finished with another tryst: As the publisher walks out of his office, he shares a kiss with the bisexual Jerome.
Just like the overlapping images of the film, suddenly Nagiko’s world is overlapping and collapsing in on itself. Her desire for revenge and to honor her father, her search for a lover-calligrapher, and her own future as author and artist converge on this moment. She decides to seduce Jerome, to teach him, to use him as her paper, to get revenge on the publisher.
But her relationship with Jerome is unlike the ones that came before. As they write and make love, a song in French plays, declaring them a “parfait mélange,” a perfect mixture. Nagiko’s struggle between calligraphy & love, her multicultural heritage, and literature & sex find a home in her relationship with Jerome. “His writing, in so many languages, made me a signpost pointing east, west, north and south. I had shoes in German, stockings in French, gloves in Hebrew, a hat with a veil in Italian.” Not only does their relationship validate her sexual relationship with calligraphy, it widens her horizons and ushers her into a new world. “He only kept me naked where I was most accustomed to being clothed,” she says. They make love on stacks of papers and in the midst of books. Jerome writes the lord’s prayer in many languages all over Nagiko’s body, her arms outstretched in the position of Christ on the cross. As it was when her father wrote a birthday greeting on her face, their calligraphy is sacred.
Little of their writing is permanent. They go in cycles just as they repeat the ritual of sex, writing on each other’s naked bodies as foreplay, washing off the ink in a post-coital embrace. In Jerome, Nagiko has found someone who appreciates and understands the beauty of the process. She’s in love; she’s ventured fully into the unknown. To consummate their relationship, she has Jerome perform the birthday ritual and write on her face. He signs his name on her and she is alive.
Contemporary dancer Steve Paxton once said “I am my own medium,” a sentiment echoed by performance artist Marina Abramovic. Both artists’ work focuses on process. Paxton’s “contact improvisation” is a largely unchoreographed mode of dance, dependent on physical contact and the laws of motion. And though Abramovic’s performances have left imprints—through the paintings or vestiges left behind—they only truly exist in the moment. By making their own bodies part of their art, they meet up with the boundaries of dignity and dehumanization. Where do they end and their art begins?
When Nagiko tells Jerome that she wants to be a writer to honor her father, it’s the most vulnerable she’s been so far. Nagiko says she must have her work published by the same man who abused her father. Jerome offers a plan: he will be her paper, and as such will deliver her book on his body and seduce the publisher. So far, Nagiko has shown no hesitation when it comes to equating skin and paper. However, with Jerome, she second guesses it, pointing out that for Jerome to seduce the publisher is not without its pleasures for him.
Lust for revenge beats out any doubts Nagiko has. She writes her first book, the first of 13, on Jerome’s body. Jerome presents himself to the publisher, promising Nagiko he’ll return soon. When he’s late, she searches for him and discovers him having sex with the publisher.
Nagiko is heartbroken, but Jerome remains unconcerned. That is, until Nagiko sends more books to the publisher, and Jerome sees the third book written across the body of their fat, exhibitionist acquaintance. Unlike the publisher, Jerome sees the imprint of the full process on the man’s body. He goes to Nagiko’s apartment, weeping, banging on the door as he begs her to let him in and forgive him. “[That was] my paint for my body,” he cries. Nagiko sits on the other side of the door and weeps.
Jerome and Nagiko find themselves in a world they were not yet prepared for. Unlike the sacred nature of calligraphy between themselves, the outside world doesn’t view skin and paper as one and the same, and so devalues the skin. Jerome, of course, was not just Nagiko’s book, but her lover; the introduction of a third party defiles their work and blurs the line between their lives and their art. When a heartbroken Jerome seeks advice, the bitter activist/photographer, Hoki, jealous of Jerome and Nagiko’s relationship, suggests that Jerome become more like the books that he and Nagiko so admire. Hoki supplies Jerome with bottles of pills and encourages Jerome to commit to his art and be like Romeo and Juliet.
The scene of Jerome’s suicide is as unflinching as the rest of the film, again letting the process play out in near entirety. Jerome counts the pills as he takes them, writing down each number, and drinks bottles of ink in one last attempt to become Nagiko’s book. As he shudders and writhes, he arranges himself with arms crossed over his chest, becoming the art he wanted to be for Nagiko. To bury Jerome, Nagiko writes on his body for the last time. He is Book 6, “The Book of the Lovers.”
The publisher has no reverence for the relationship between skin and paper. He once told Nagiko her words were “not worth the paper” they were written on, and it appears that he doesn’t believe Jerome was worth more than paper either. Secretly, he has Jerome’s body exhumed and skinned to create a perverted pillow book of his own. For the publisher, Jerome’s body becomes the medium in a horrifying fashion.
Watching as Jerome’s skin is flayed, scraped, and dried is chilling for its lack of humanity. But being unforgiving in its determination and commitment to process, the film utilizes the disgusting display to reinforce Nagiko’s point of view, fully drawing the audience into the previously unknown world of her psyche. Seeing Jerome’s skin become a book in a literal sense cements the relationship between skin and paper, and, by extension, between calligraphy and love.
Nagiko burns everything she owns, all of her writing she created with Jerome, and retreats to Japan to start over once more, starting the life and birth process like a phoenix. It mirrors her separation with her husband, except this time, the destroyed pillow book was Jerome.
After Jerome’s death, the marriage between medium and message in Nagiko’s work is perfected. In order to bargain for the return of Jerome’s now desecrated body, she continues to send the agreed-upon 13 books to the publisher. In Book 7, she asks, “Where is a book before it is born? Who are a book’s parents? Does a book need two parents: a mother and a father?” Book 9, “The Book of Secrets,” is written on the messenger’s eyelids and between his fingers. Book 10, “The Book of Silence,” written on the messenger’s tongue.
At this point, Nagiko is conspicuously absent. Her words are her power. The publisher lies awake at night, eyes wide open, images of the books projected behind him.
For book 13, Nagiko finally reveals her identity to the publisher. She condemns him for the abuse of her father, her disastrous marriage that he arranged, and the desecration of Jerome’s body. “You and I both know you have lived long enough,” she’s written. Stricken, the publisher hands over the book of Jerome, and lets Book 13 complete his mission. The messenger—the book—slits the publisher’s throat. Book 13 is “The Book of Death.”
The book made from Jerome’s body is returned to Nagiko on her 28th birthday, the 1,000th anniversary of Sei Shōnagon’s pillow book. She places the pages of Jerome beneath a bonsai tree, at last putting him to rest and closing that chapter of her life. She then turns to her—and Jerome’s—newly born daughter, and writes the birthday greeting on the baby’s face. She is both pen and paper once more. At age 28, she narrates, “I have experiences enough to write my own pillow book…I can now make my own list of things that make the heart beat faster.”