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The Pillow Book (1996)

A 1996 movie directed by Peter Greenaway.

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The Pillow Book -- I will make you a list of sensual things

  • Oct 6, 2010
Peter Greenaway can never be accused of making movies.  He is resolutely a maker of art films for so-called “art house” theaters.

Since movies are foremost a visual medium, so his attention is always on that aspect.  All of his films try to tell a story, but as often as not it gets lost in a convoluted telling.

The Pillow Book is the exception.  The film never stops being pretty, but the story is strong enough to withstand its telling—it is convoluted, but just enough to keep a patient viewer enticed and finally rewarded.  I recommend it for them and especially for  those with a very well developed sense of the Romantic and the romantic. Here is my original review; what follows is a quick, hopefully compelling gloss.

Nagiko (Vivian Wu) is the daughter of a writer who is subtly terrorized by the man who publishes his work. Nagiko is most driven and touched by literature and language (especially by the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting in the Japanese court a thousand years previously). Her husband, whom she marries due to an arrangement with the publisher, is brutish and interested only in sports.  She leaves him and Japan for a hidden life in Hong Kong where she makes a new life for herself in the fashion world. In Hong Kong, she explores her fascination with language by trying to find a lover and calligrapher (“I couldn’t determine which was better, an indifferent calligrapher who was a good lover or an excellent lover who was a poor calligrapher”). This search ultimately leads her to Jerome (Ewan McGregor). His first pass as her calligrapher fails, but his second one succeeds and they become lovers. Soon, Nagiko discovers that the publisher who used to sodomize her father is doing the same to Jerome.

What happens after Nagiko learns this changes the tone and structure of the film so that it becomes something closer to a “where’s my popcorn” movie but without losing Greenaway’s signature peculiarities. 

It is easily one of the most sensual films I’ve ever seen, particularly for someone as obsessed with language as I am.  Language becomes foreplay and sex and infidelity. For example, a teenage Nagiko is basically raped by the publisher when he usurps a role her father had always played: on her birthday, her father would write a creation myth on her face and sign the nape of her neck when he was finished. For one of her birthdays, the publisher signs the nape of her neck. This occurs about half an hour into the movie, and it is amazing how well Greenaway has created the link between text and the body because this simple act feels in all ways like watching a rape. 

So by the time Nagiko meets Jerome, the text/body link is well established.  Watching them write on each other’s bodies left me tingling.  Think about lying down, looking into the eyes of your lover as they paint words on exposed skin, of how it would tickle as the brush made its path and the ink would go on a little chilly and warm with the body heat and mesh with the skin like a thin lotion.

That image is pretty trite, but I tried writing it in a dozen different ways and it’s the only one that accurately describes what “watching” the movie made me “feel.”

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More The Pillow Book reviews
review by . April 18, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
"The Pillow Book"     Sensual and Erotic     Amos Lassen and Cinema Pride     To describe "The Pillow Book" is a very difficult task. Is it exotic or is it erotic or maybe both? It is sensual, delicate and beautiful. The music is mysterious and the cinematography is stunning.   As a young girl in Japan, Nagiko's father paints characters on her face. Her aunt reads to her from "The Pillow Book" which was the diary of a lady-in-waiting …
review by . February 08, 2003
THE PILLOW BOOK goes where few films have dared. Peter Greenaway is a unique artist and has created a touching story in a cinematic technique that is clearly his own. Simply stated, The Pillow Book is a journal kept by Japanese women who write private thoughts about desire, beauty, sensuality, and the moments in life that are indescribably unforgetable. In this story we see the unfolding of the life of a daughter of a calligrapher/writer who is able to provide for this beloved family and all their …
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Paul Savage ()
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I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,Drowning by Numbers) continues to delight and disturb us with his talent for combining storytelling with optic artistry.The Pillow Bookis divided into 10 chapters (consistent with Greenaway's love of numbers and lists) and is shot to be viewed like a book, complete with tantalizing illustrations and footnotes (subtitles) and using television's "screen-in-screen" technology. As a child in Japan, 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 a 10th-century pillow book. As she gets older, Nagiko (Vivian Wu) looks for a lover with calligraphy skills to continue the annual ritual. She is initially thrilled when she encounters Jerome (Ewan McGregor), a bisexual translator who can speak and write several languages, but soon realizes that although he is a magnificent lover, his penmanship is less than acceptable. When Nagiko dismisses the enamored Jerome, he suggests she use his flesh as the pages which to present her own pillow book. The film, complete with a musical score as international as the languages used in the narration, is visually hypnotic and truly an immense "work of art."--Michele Goodson
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Director: Peter Greenaway
Screen Writer: Peter Greenaway, Sei Shonagon
DVD Release Date: December 15, 1998
Runtime: 126 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures
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