Run fast, stand still. This, the lesson from the lizards. For all writers.– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
Makura no Soshi or The Pillow Book stands out as a unique work of literary and historical value. It was written by a lady-in-waiting to an Empress of feudal Japan. Her nom de plume was Sei Shonagon. Her real name may have been Kiyohara Nagiko, but no one knows for sure. What we do know is that she wrote about love, sex, royal shenanigans, and the beauty of people and objects in the form of poetic lists, which she compiled – obsessively – more than a thousand years ago.
First translated into English in 1889, The Pillow Book is also the title of a 1996 film written and directed by Peter Greenaway. The main character of the film, Nagiko (portrayed by Vivian Wu) is a woman of mixed Chinese/Japanese heritage. She is truly a woman of contrasts and inconsistencies, but what I find most interesting about her is her obsession with writing.
Obsession may not be a strong enough word because as the movie unfolds Nagiko’s obsession reveals itself as a “writing insanity” – the literal translation of graphomania from the Greek: the uncontrollable impulse and desire to write with a complete lack of restraint. It’s akin to being intoxicated on a feeling that is simultaneously frenzied and controlled.
You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
Becoming completely captivated by something you’re working on as a writer to the point where only you, and the words running out on the page exist is a joyful thing. Unfortunately, this turns sour for our girl Nagiko when discipline is abandoned and unbridled desire takes over.
The foundation for Nagiko’s obsession is laid in her childhood by her father (Ken Ogata), an author of some repute, who on each anniversary of Nagiko’s birth enscribes Japanese calligraphic characters on her face, signing his name on her neck as her mother and aunt look on. Nagiko’s aunt reads from Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book while a record of an annoyingly happy Chinese tune, popular when Nagiko’s parents met, plays in the background.
At first this seems like some innocent birthday face-painting, but as Nagiko begins to blossom into a woman the ritual takes on psycho-sexual overtones. It is, in fact, a branding and objectification ritual by the male hegemony that serves to divest Nagiko of her humanity. The passage being read by the aunt from The Pillow Book to accompany this act is the “lists of beautiful things.” Nagiko is just another beautiful thing.
Although it remains unclear as to whether Nagiko’s father has been forced into or has consented to a homosexual relationship with his publisher, Nagiko accidentally uncovers this relationship at an early age. Whatever it’s true nature the knowledge of this ongoing relationship will inform Nagiko’s decisions and obsessions as a writer. It also serves as a very interesting visual metaphor.
Sex for the adult Nagiko becomes a complex affair, where foreplay is a lover’s soft, wet calligraphy brush trailing characters across Nagiko’s skin, reminding us all that writing must give the writer, and bring to the reader pleasure.