“The Pillow Book” is a film that evokes many reactions. Shock and horror, to mention a few. It deals with questionable subjects, which not everyone is comfortable with, or likes. It is sexually explicit, has a lot of nudity and strange fetishes and, I think, slightly unbalanced characters, but if you can get through that-(not many can)-the tale that emerges is strangely compelling.
I was shocked and horrified too. But also kind of intrigued about what the story was trying to communicate. Just before watching the film, we were informed by our instructor that filmmakers are essentially manipulators, and every layer is there for a reason, there is nothing coincidental about what is depicted. So then, I thought that there must be a reason why the filmmaker has chosen such controversial and unconventional topics to depict, while also exploring Japanese culture. What is the significance of the calligraphy on the body? What is the significance of the paper/skin context? And what exactly is a pillow book? There were also some vague references to the Empress, so it inspired me to do some research, and it turns out that Sei Shonagon was one of the court ladies of Empress Teishi, in tenth century Japan. I think that this point highlights one of my responses to the film; it encouraged me to research Japanese culture and a little history as well.
The movie tells the story of a young girl, Nagiko, who, since, and because of her childhood, has a love of love and literature. Every birthday, her father uses his dagger-brush to write Japanese symbols on her face and her back, and every night, her mother reads her excerpts out of “The Pillow Book”, written by Sei Shonagon. They are mostly a collection of notes, observations, opinions and form into a genre of their own, called zuihitsu. Naturally, a love of words emerges, and the little girl, Nagiko vows to write a pillow book of her own, and hopes, that perhaps, one day, she could write an account of the lovers she has had, just like Sei Shonagon. It seems that fate steps in here because one can only write a pillow book if one has enough observations and experiences. Sei Shonagon comes across as strangely artistic in her lists: “a child eating strawberries, “– the words are beautiful, like poetry almost, and it’s not surprising that Nagiko learns to love literature. It shapes her into the woman that she becomes, as throughout her life, she is looking for a lover who can fulfil her carnal desires and her love for poetry. However, she is unsuccessful in this attempt, as the men she meets are one of the two; either good calligraphers, or good lovers, never both. I had a number of questions about it, namely: what is she trying to accomplish? At a deeper level, what is she searching for?
Nagiko is quite a complex character. She is a hedonist, and for her, desire has two branches-pleasure and words. She cannot be truly satisfied without obtaining both. She is suffering from some sort of Elektra complex, which fuels her need to be written on, to be objectified, to be used as a slate. She also wants to be a writer, to make her father proud. But the idea to be the writer, not just to be written on, comes from a British man, Jerome, who works as a translator, whose handwriting she is repulsed by-“You are a scribbler, not a writer”-but his idea strikes a hidden chord in her, and plays a part in them becoming lovers. Jerome becomes her favourite lover, and she has finally found a single person who can fulfil her love of poetry and pleasure and challenge her as well.
The major theme of the film is the paper/skin context. The characters are obsessed with skin and its role as a slate, and this has connections to the Japanese concept of body painting. The first character through whom this is explored is Nagiko, the other is the publisher, whose obsession with skin reaches such disturbing levels that he actually exhumes the body of Nagiko’s dead lover, peels the skin off his body-on which Nagiko has written The Book of Lovers- and compresses it to transform it into a pillow book of his own. He is constantly licking, touching skin. I was also a little confused as to what his character was. Throughout his life, he hasn’t been the epitome of virtues; he blackmailed Nagiko’s father; exchanging sexual favours in return for publishing his books, Nagiko was married to his son, who was intolerant and lived in a closed box of his own, and then, in the end, when through the Book of the Dead, Nagiko reveals her identity, and essentially tells the publisher that he is a flawed human being, he is overcome with remorse, and kills himself. I thought it was incongruous with his character.
Initially, the movie for me was a sort of puzzle; bits and pieces, with the rectangular insets, and confusing as well, but slowly, as the story began to emerge, I realized that it is a puzzle; a Chinese Puzzle, where one piece links to the other, and it all makes sense. I considered the ways it can be interpreted, and I realized in some strange sort of way, I actually identify with the movie. I was shocked when I realized that I could not only understand a film of this genre, but actually relate to it (?!) So, to answer the aforementioned questions, it’s a woman’s search for perfection, or, what for her embodies perfection, and she is not content to settle for anything less than that. It can even be classified as integrity, if you take Ayn Rand’s definition of it. Integrity is not just about being honest; it’s also about standing by an idea, and not accepting anything less than that. Nagiko knows what she wants, she wants love, and she wants literature, and she wants them in a combined form, and she doesn’t shy away when she meets obstacles; she breaks free, and goes out and searches for them, refuses to compromise, and eventually finds what she is looking for. I think what you want also reflects who you are, and what you are made of, so it’s also a journey of self discovery for Nagiko, and she finds herself, and is finally happy.
As a holistic experience, I didn’t enjoy the film. It’s because of the genre it falls under. A part of me, the conservative part, argues that the nudity could have been shown in a much more sensitive way, and the other part of me is arguing about what I feel the film is trying to convey. It’s kind of like the movie Black Swan, which is also about a woman’s search for perfection, albeit not in such a disturbing manner, although it does have sexual connotations. That was a movie I enjoyed, mostly for the ballet, also, I believe in certain theatres in India they screened the censored version. However, there were certain parts in “The Pillow Book”, which I-I’m not going to say “like”-felt were quite impactful, and those aspects were the messages it communicated at a deeper level. Even though the genre was quite shocking, it drew me outside my comfort level, and opened my eyes to the variety of films out there, which is important for me, not just as a filmmaker, but also as a person.
I think everyone needs something in life to exult over; something which keeps us constantly energized. To not have inspiration is equivalent to death. I also hope that the inspirations are not as disturbing as Nagiko’s obsessions, although every person is different. Everyone is searching for something, and some people are unaware of it, but it is reflected in what you want out of life. For example, I know I’m looking for something, but I’m not sure what it is yet. I believe happiness in life is relatively simple, it consists of two things-knowing what you want, and achieving it. Knowing what you want is a representative of clarity; it’s equivalent to knowing your goal. And achieving it, well, it’s like self actualization. I think that’s one of the many things Nagiko is a symbol of. Perhaps, -I use the word tentatively-I even liked that concept. And maybe that’s why I haven’t already dismissed the film as yet another one of its lurid contemporaries that explore the theme of eroticism.