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In the opening sequence of The Pillow Book, a small Japanese girl sits before her father on her birthday while he paints on her face and the back of her neck with calligrapher’s ink. As he writes on her he chants in Japanese: “When God made the first clay model of a human being, He painted in the eyes, the lips, and the sex. Then He painted in each person’s name, lest the owner should ever forget it.” This mantra serves as a chorus throughout The Pillow Book¸ as well as a warning. Nagiko, the film’s protagonist, becomes obsessed with skin, the body’s shell. At times, she disregards the person. However, as her fetish with skin grows, it begins to overtake her own identity and Nagiko ultimately finds herself lost in a world of distrust, jealousy, and skin. For Nagiko, using the body as paper becomes a sensual experience because it reminds her of her Father’s person and human.
Family is perhaps the best predictor of the person. Parents, in particular, shape their children genetically, giving them their bodies, and socially, by developing and manipulating their children’s personalities. Nagiko recognized and honored the connection she shared with her father and how he had shaped her. She even took to the practice of writing on skin in a sort of homage to her father. He taught her how to write calligraphy, a skill Nagiko would perfect later in life. Through her father’s instruction, Nagiko learn to identify and revere beautiful handwriting. It was, in fact, her father’s own spectacular calligraphy, coupled with his unwavering love for his daughter, that ignited Nagiko’s obsession with skin painting.
Nagiko associates the art of writing on skin and her own, personal, “pillow book” with her father because of the circumstances surrounding her fourth birthday, the first time she was “used as paper” by her father. As Nagiko’s father wrote on her, he recited “When God made the first clay model of a human being, He painted in the eyes, the lips, and the sex.” This aphorism equates the essence of a human being to its eyes, lips, and sex. Perhaps such parts are identified for practical reasons; after all, we use our eyes to see, our lips to express ourselves, and our sexes to distinguish and situate ourselves in society. However, the references to eyes, lips, and sex could easily represent an underlying, sexual tension. We use our eyes to spot lovers, to spark and confirm sexual chemistry. We use our lips to kiss, and our different sexes allow for conventional sex in the first place. Perhaps Nagiko, regardless of her young age, sensed this sexual innuendo and would forever associate her ritual skin-painting with a sexual experience.
After this initial line, Nagiko’s father would say “Then He painted in 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.” Such a distinction not only infers that one’s name is essential to their person, but that there is a certain separation between the creation and the creator.
According to the saying, the honor of gaining and maintaining a name is the result of physical approval. Furthermore, the second portion of the proverb connects the creator to its creation, but also creates a disconnect. Because the creator signs his own creation, one could infer that, in a larger sense, no body is independent of a creation and, subsequently, a creator. However, the creator assigns a name to his creation, while maintaining his own name. The creator does not sacrifice his own uniqueness, his own approval, but offers new approval to his creation. That is, the creator sustains and exercises his power over the person of his creation by assigning it a name.
By taking the practice of her father and using it on her lovers, Nagiko tries to bridge this gap. She uses her lovers’ bodies not to connect with them as a person or human, but to satisfy her own obsession for skin. This trend, however, ends when Nagiko finds her “pillow book:” a man whose body, person, and human please her entirely.
For Nagiko, beautiful calligraphy and sexual prowess become equally important traits in her lovers. She states: “Older men may have beautiful handwriting, but they fail to take advantage of all my young self has to offer. Younger men satisfy me in bed, but they are easily distracted.” Throughout the entire narration, Nagiko searches for a lover that would not only be able to satisfy her sexual wants, but be able to write on her in beautifully-crafted calligraphy. Jerome is the first man that Nagiko can love for his body, person, and human.
An aspiring writer himself, Nagiko entices Jerome by saying, “If you are a writer, surely you will write on anything.” In an attempt to please her, Jerome hones his handwriting skills and proves to be a lover that not only satisfies her sexually, but emotionally. Nagiko and Jerome write on each other, treating each other as blank canvasses, creating masterpieces on one another’s bodies.
In an attempt to rectify her father’s objectification and maltreatment, Nagiko uses Jerome’s body as paper. A struggling writer, Nagiko’s father fell prey to a successful publisher, who used him for sexual pleasure. Coincidentally, Jerome’s previous lover was the very same publisher. When Nagiko first presents her work to the publisher, she has a reporter take pictures of her words on a naked subject and deliver them. The publisher is not impressed and rejects the work. Amidst frustration, Nagiko’s maid suggests, “Try to seduce him – offer yourself as paper,” suggesting that offering one’s body as paper, as something that can be marked and manipulated, is highly provocative. Needing to be in control, however, Nagiko decides to seduce the publisher’s lover, Jerome, and use him as paper. Nagiko writes the first installment of her “pillow book” on Jerome’s skin, utilizing his entire body; words meticulously decorate on his arms, torso, legs, and buttocks. The publisher is instantly aroused and emotionally moved by Jerome’s naked body covered in beautiful calligraphy.
While the purposes of the two attempts are identical, the medium is radically different. That is, the publisher found the sight of an actual body far more provocative and valuable than mere pictures of a body, illustrating the concept that the body is a powerful tool, not only in regards to mechanics, but in regards to concepts, as well.
The interplay between body, human, and person that follows is thought-provoking. As art, as a literary work, Jerome ceases to be a person. While his body is still functioning as a living organism, he has lost his humanity and is no longer a person. He has stepped into an illusive realm of quasi-humanity. Jerome’s body is functioning as a tool, a medium of communication between Nagiko and the publisher. His humanity has been translated into practicality and his person has been sacrificed for Nagiko’s art.
His sacrifice comes at a high price, however. Jerome reenters the realm of humanity when he sleeps with the publisher and shuns Nagiko, if only for a short time. Ultimately, Nagiko’s obsession with skin and the possibilities it offers as art overtake her entire life. She sacrifices her relationship with Jerome and, ultimately, his life for her righteous work of avenging her father. Jerome commits suicide in an ill-conceived attempt to apologize and repent for his infidelity; Jerome’s person and humanity leave his body behind. The publisher, heart-broken and bitterly distraught, can not let Jerome rest in peace. He digs up Jerome’s body and skins it, creating his own morbid “pillow book” from Jerome’s posthumous hide.
After hearing of this disturbing event, Nagiko makes it her mission to avenge Jerome’s violation as well as her father’s. She states in an address to the publisher, “You have now committed the greatest crime of all – you have desecrated the body of my lover.” In her mission to rectify Jerome’s death and her father’s humiliation, Nagiko also fulfills her promise to Jerome: that of thirteen books written on the human body. Since Jerome’s body can no longer be used as a medium, Nagiko employs the help of twelve other men, each of which sacrifice their bodies for her purpose. Nagiko knows her work is unique and provocative; she offers her own “pillow books” as a bargain for the one made of Jerome’s body. After eleven additional attempts, the publisher is intrigued but obstinate. Nagiko uses her thirteenth “pillow book” to end the publisher’s life, therefore robbing him of the most precious gift: his ability to live as a human and person.
The Pillow Book lends a whole new meaning to the phrase “body language.” It explores the realms of body, person, and human, but blurs the lines where they overlap and intersect. The film illustrates that the body can be separated from the person and the human, if only for pragmatic reasons or as a price for life. We, as humans, can separate others from their humanity and personality if we can simply consider their bodies as mere tools of communication and art.
Nagiko begins her last monologue with, “There are two things in life which are dependable: the delights of the flesh and the delights of literature.” For Nagiko, the delights of the flesh and the delights of literature are inseparable. She delights in both literature and the flesh by stripping away the human and person of her subjects and enjoying their bodies as instruments of literature and sex. However, Nagiko does not mistake this pleasure for love. If Nagiko loved one man purely, it was her father. In an attempt to avenge her father’s dishonor, she uses Jerome. However, Nagiko finds herself delighting in more than Jerome’s body, but in his human and person, as well. Nagiko’s affection for Jerome transforms into love because she learns to respect him as a person and a human, not just as a body, a tool for communication.
Additionally, Nagiko harbors no sexual sentiment for her father because her love is rooted in something deeper than affection for his body; Nagiko loves her father as a person and human, not as a body. That is, in The Pillow Book, the basis for love seems to exist not in admiration for the body, but in respect and affection for the humanity and personality of an individual.
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