The erotic potential of calligraphy is explored in Peter Greenaway’s elegant film

Director Pete Greenaway created a unique film in The Pillow Book. A pillow book is a diary of sorts kept by Japanese women, where they keep their most private thoughts and reflections on life. As precisely structured as the fine Japanese calligraphy graphically written over lead actress Vivian Wu’s naked flesh, The Pillow Book is an absorbing tale of revenge. The erotically-charged drama works outside the bounds of conventional filmmaking, pushing the edge with its inventive cinematography and mesmerizing visuals. It proves quite memorable for more than just its rampant nudity and raw sexuality.

Nagiko (Vivian Wu) grew up each birthday in childhood with her father painting the creation myth on her face, using her body as the canvas for his elegant calligraphy. That formative experience sparks an obsession with Nagiko as an adult, leading her to seek a succession of lovers. She demands her lovers use her body as a canvas for their calligraphy, turning the elegant art form into an erotic display of love. The boundaries between love and art get blurred for Nagiko when she decides to become an author of calligraphy, instead of the mere canvas.

The situation for the Japanese model gets complicated when she meets a bisexual translator named Jerome (Ewan McGregor). Jerome becomes a tool of vengeance in Nagiko’s conflict against her beloved father’s lecherous publisher. The exploitative publisher had taken advantage of her father when she was a child. The publisher was carrying on a dalliance with the young translator before Jerome had met Nagiko. This love triangle between the three becomes the centerpiece of the film’s narrative.

Yes, Obi-Wan Kenobi bares his lightsaber in The Pillow Book.

The Pillow Book is so elegantly crafted that it reads more like literature than mere cinema. It is spoken in a variety of languages from Japanese to English. The innovative cinematography uses a variety of aspect ratios and picture-in-picture techniques to tell this moving story in a very unconventional, but effective, manner. The film’s heady visual experiences are breathtaking at times, rendered with the same precision as the brushstrokes in Japanese calligraphy. Rarely does film approach this level of art. It is also not a case of style over substance. Nagiko’s story is a poignant exploration of a young woman’s inner life and thoughts on the tragic journey her life takes.

For those willing to step outside the bounds of mainstream cinema, The Pillow Book is a remarkable film that will stick in your mind with its arresting visual design. It is art-house fare, but art-house fare so richly designed that its emotional center remains engaging until the end. If you have a problem with male nudity, look someplace else other than this film. Nagiko begins writing her calligraphy on a variety of nude men when she tires of being the canvas herself, including a very young Ewan McGregor. Yes, Obi-Wan Kenobi bares his lightsaber in The Pillow Book. An understanding of calligraphy or Japanese isn’t necessary to enjoy The Pillow Book’s intricate charms. Its storytelling works without that contextual knowledge.

Movie ★★★★☆

Signing an autograph @ 40:56

Independent distributor Film Movement Classics brings The Pillow Book to Blu-ray in a very fine 1.33:1 presentation that easily supersedes prior home video versions. It retains all of the various aspect ratios from the original theatrical run. The Pillow Book has elaborate, changing cinematography during its uncut 126-minute running time. A number of aspect ratios are utilized within the larger 1.33 aspect ratio, supervised by Peter Greenaway himself for this movie’s prior home video release. The stylized video presentation marks a sizable improvement in clarity and definition.

The 1080P main feature is encoded in AVC, averaging a fairly high 30 Mbps in a transparent encode without artifacts. The 1996 film has its best picture quality when the full 1.33 window is being used. The color saturation is deep and vivid, bringing out striking magenta tones. Contrast is steady with solid black levels. Flesh-tones are on the pale side. It’s possible a touch of filtering was applied, the grain structure is rather smooth though fine detail still remains. The film elements are in pristine condition.

Some caveats apply to the picture-in-picture sections and some of the smaller aspect ratios matted inside the bigger 1.33:1 frame. The wider shots definitely suffer a bit in ultimate resolution when shrunk that small, even on a larger display or projection screen. I expected a sloppier technicals, yet the superimposed imagery works without a hitch.

In some ways this is a remarkable new film transfer since The Pillow Book is such a demanding, intricate visual film. While this transfer doesn’t have the utmost detail or richest film quality, its clarity and definition are huge improvements over what has come before it on home video. Film Movement Classics has done top-notch work in bringing the independent catalog film to Hi-Def video.

Video ★★★★☆

The film’s original audio is presented in an excellent 2.0 PCM soundtrack. The Pillow Book has an eclectic selection of music, from French Pop to very traditional Japanese music. The foreign and English dialogue is perfectly intelligible, cleanly rendered in balance with a rich mix of music. There is notable low-end on the soundtrack and wide dynamic range. The independent film presents a surprisingly strong soundtrack despite lacking a surround mix.

One note here about the English subtitles, which display in a white font. They only translate the foreign-language dialogue. The English dialogue is left untouched. This option is not particularly friendly to English listeners that need the subtitles for understanding.

Audio ★★★★☆

The Pillow Book gets a wide array of trailers for other Film Movement Classics movies and a curious audio commentary. Senior editor at Film Comment Magazine, Nicholas Rapold, provides a written essay in the included booklet. The essay briefly covers Greenaway’s other films but primarily analyzes The Pillow Book. It’s a 12-page color booklet loaded with stills from the film.

There is actually some interesting stuff to be found in the commentary and essay. This is the kind of movie that screams for a special feature on calligraphy.

Audio Commentary by Director Peter Greenaway – This is a fascinating listen that talks about art history more than the film itself. The British director talks about his background and how he got interested in this project. I don’t believe Greenaway specifically addresses his comments toward the screen. It feels more like a guest lecture on topics that interest the director. The only disappointing thing is that it ends about 45 minutes into the film.

The Pillow Book Trailer (02:05 in HD)

Film Movement Classics Trailers (all in HD) – Full Moon in Paris, The Marquise of O, Amour Fou, A Life in Dirty Movies, Come Undone, The Piano in a Factory

Extras ★★★☆☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

2 thoughts on "The Pillow Book Blu-ray Review"

  1. Mierzwiak says:

    Four stars for video? Those screens are ugly.

    1. Phantom Stranger says:

      It looks like a slightly older transfer but the cinematography is very nice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *