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Literature: The Pillow Book

When I come into the room to serve Her Majesty and see the other women have already crowded around her, I sit next to a column apart from them. Her Majesty sees me and calls. I love it when the others make way for me when I go to sit next to her.
—Sei Shonagon

The Pillow Book is one of the masterpieces of Japanese literature. Written during the Heian period by Sei Shonagon, lady-in-waiting of Empress Sadako, it is an impressionistic compendium of hundreds of things classified by categories ("Rare things", "Things that make the heart beat faster", "Things that bring up fond memories of the past", etc.) as well as everyday scenes at the Japanese imperial court at the turn of the 11th century.

Peter Greenaway used the book as a basis for a movie, also titled The Pillow Book, which focuses on Kiyowara Nagiko, a modern-day fan and emulator of Sei Shonagon. Vivian Wu plays Nagiko and Ewan McGregor her Western boyfriend.


Contains examples of:

Original work:

  • Alpha Bitch: Sei is this trope for Empress Sadako's court, as the page quote clearly indicates.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: Basically the Pillow Book is an account of everyday life in such a setting though Sei tends to skim over the tensions and pretty much ignores the fact that her Empress and her faction are under attack from a competing branch of the Fujiwara family.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: Sei describes in detail the proper forms for a lover's visit and writes of 'gentlemen' roaming the passages of the ladies' quarters which is fine by her. She just doesn't think they should be doing it when on duty.
  • Fangirl: Sei just dotes on the Imperial family, especially the Empress she serves.
  • Graceful Ladies Like Purple: And Heian gentlemen too. Violet, purple and mauve costumes are described over and over again.
  • Human Notepad: Fetishised.
  • Japanese Politeness: Etiquette at the Heian court was so refined, it would make 18th-century Versailles look sloppy. If you wanted to ask a woman out, you'd better do it in the form of an exquisitely calligraphed poem.
  • Not Staying for Breakfast: Sei Shonagon writes disparagingly of lovers who don't have the good sense to sneak out before daybreak.
  • Really Gets Around: Sei makes no bones about her eye for the gentlemen.
  • Shrines and Temples: The ladies of the court regularly go on pilgrimages to famous Buddhist temples.
  • Tsundere: Apparently normal romantic behavior at the Heian Court.
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: Sei Shonagon makes a point of mentioning her keen sense of fashion, by describing both her own dress (which never seems to be twice the same) and that of other courtiers. Wear yesterday's fashion in her presence and she'll never speak to you again.
    • Oh, she will. It's just that she'll also list you as one of the "Things that should not be looked at".
    • She loosens up by the end of the book. She loosens up insofar as she says at one point "clogs with trousers may be in fashion right now, but they're still ugly."
  • Upper-Class Twit: Plenty of those at the Imperial court.

Movie version:

  • Best Served Cold: Nagiko's revenge is years in the making.
  • Bi the Way: Nagiko's lover, Jerome.
  • Body Paint
  • But Not Too Foreign: Nagiko's mother is Chinese, but her father is Japanese.
  • Depraved Homosexual: The Publisher, against whom Nagiko takes revenge.
  • Fake Nationality: Nagiko is played by Vivian Wu (邬君梅 Wū Jūnméi) a Chinese actress born in Shanghai. Appropriately, in the film, Nagiko's mother is also from Shanghai.
  • Grave Robbing: The Publisher.
  • In Name Only: The movie only indirectly refers to the original work, doing so through the prism of a more conventional present-day story of love, revenge, and above all fetishism - namely, writing on human skin.
  • Jerk Jock: Nagiko's husband.
  • Meaningful Funeral:
  • No Name Given: The Publisher, Father, Mother, Aunt, Maid, Husband... In fact Nagiko, Jerome, and Hoki are the only characters in the film who are given names.

The Pilgrim's ProgressClassic LiteraturePoetics
PhenomenonFilms of the 1990sPrimal Fear
PaprikaJapanese LiteraturePsychic Detective Yakumo

alternative title(s): The Pillow Book
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