"Makura no Sôshi" is original Japanese title of the famous work "The Pillow Book" by Sei Shonagon (circa 1000). This is a collection of over 300 brief paragraphs and are her informal memoirs of her days as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Teishi. The title comes from the casual notes on stray slips of paper that one might jot down at night and place in the drawer of one's wooden pillow.

Along with Murasaki Shikibu she was one of the greatest writers of the Heian era.

Makura no Sôshi is one of my favorite books. Much like Everything2, it is a compilation of stories, poetry and random thoughts by its author, Sei Shonagon. I was thrilled to finally reach a point with my Japanese where I could read it, first in modern Japanese, and then in the original. Her lists are full of things that still hold true: pine trees listed as things that are more beautiful when painted; a child eating a strawberry listed under adorable things. She goes on about a dog that lived at court, a trip to a shrine, a vague description of a lover's visit. She makes lists and little commentaries about everyday things. I was in high school the first time I read her book, tho in English, and remember being struck by her very short write-up on oxen. I do not remember her exact preferences in oxen, but the blurb went something like, "An ox should be black, with white feet and forehead, a white spot on the back and a white tip to the tail." For a while I wondered why she would spend time writing even that much about an ox, or why it should matter what an ox looked like at all. With a bit of imagination, though, I realized that oxen pulled carts in her world, so her comments could well be figuratively translated to read, "A car should be bright red, with a black leather interior and aluminium wheels." It became a challenge, from that point on, to read more figuratively, but without too much inference.

The Pillow Book is written and directed by Peter Greenaway, and is loosely based on a 10th century Japanese literary classic called The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogan.

The movie follows the life of Nagiko, a woman who, growing up, listens to her mother read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon and, every year, feels the touch of her father writing a birthday greeting on her skin. Nagiko develops a love of literature in both the traditional sense and in the touch of ink to skin. After a twisted life in Japan involving an oaf of a husband and a homosexual publisher, she flees to Hong Kong, where she confidently asks lover after lover to write all over her body. Eventually, in her search for the ideal lover/calligrapher, Nagiko meets Jerome, an English writer/translator. Though with horrible penmanship himself, he invites her to use his body as the pages of a book all her own. At first closed off to the idea, Nagiko becomes infatuated with writing on others, and with Jerome. This gives the viewer visual feasts of the human body, both naked and clothed with words.

Even more fascinating, if possible, than the myriads of human flesh is the technological display. The Pillow Book is a movie with layers, with frames within frames and windows on top of windows. Much of the movie is set against a background of creamy text or erotic artwork, subtitles emerging and vanishing through the scenes.

The Pillow Book stars Vivian Wu as Nagiko and Ewan McGregor as Jerome. Other credits go to Yoshi Oida as the Publisher and Yutaka Honda as Hoki. It was filmed in 1995 but released in 1996, and carries an NC-17 rating in most countries, though it is unrated in the US. It contains Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and French; usually subtitled but often left to the original language and sound devices, and is narrated in English.

A pillow book is also the name given in the West to collections of erotic Japanese woodblock prints (shunga) dating from the 17th - 19th century depicting various sexual positions and practises ranging from the mundane to the athletic to the utterly impossible.

Expressions are lifelike: very few of these people are smiling. Instead they have the pained/angry expressions of two people getting it ON! as opposed to the pasted-on grins of Western erotica, with the male looking decidedly determined, and the female's head often tipped back in an orgasmic sob, her back arched in mammalian lordosis. Genitalia are often drawn with clinical precision, but not always to scale: often the penises are HUGE fuckers (athem), advancing on the hapless vulva with the ferocity of Musashi dispatching a bandit. To add to the general swing of things, often both partners are usually wearing kimono (not a bad idea, considering, since often I've felt rather cold about the shoulders whilst in the act), adding to the sinuous lines of the intertwined bodies with decorative swirls of clothing, moreover, they often sport elaborate hairstyles as well (not unsurprisingly, styles associated with high-end prostitution --tayuu, or oiran-- abound, though the more modest "geisha" or even "housewife" styles are seen, now and then).

Western lore about pillow books, as with a lot of other Asian erotic art, is extensive, romantic, and mostly false: at various times, pillow books have been thought to be marriage manuals, given to newlyweds to avoid the embarrassment of the traditional mother-to-daughter talk ("Remember, it happened to the Queen.") common in Western cultures, checklists for sophisticated lovers among the aristocracy, even religious art. Most scholars today are agreed that their intent and use was pretty much the same as pr0n nowadays: cheap stroke material available in the red-light district as a souvenir or sex-to-go, so to speak, along with portraits of the reigning beauties of the day, pictures of actors, views of mountains (with cute chix0rs in foreground) etc. Wildly popular, shunga account for up to 50% of all woodblock prints made, despite occasional censorship.

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