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Duality and Opposition in The Pillow Book

Duality and Opposition in The Pillow Book

While there are several strong themes and motifs within the confines of Greenaway’s The Pillow Book[1] one could examine—those of opposition and duality are extremely apparent. The duality/opposition encompasses both the visual and audio aspects of the film.  In the following short paper, I will reveal and discuss the features of both duality and opposition of The Pillow Book–and what they mean in terms of the narrative.

The Pillow Book contains numerous examples of duality/opposition, including: Old—new; empowered—powerless; dark—light; paper/skin—writing instrument; East—West; male—female; organic—man-made and life—death.  The ancient ritual practiced by Nagiko and her father, enacted while her aunt reads from the ancient, original Pillow Book with ancient chants humming in the background is juxtaposed against Nagiko’s quest for the perfect ritual partner in modern, busy and rather crass Hong Kong. The simple tradition within the family confine slips into the flashing, very public neon world of fashion modeling and fleeting trends for Nagiko.

Further, the ritual itself is composed of male and female beings utilizing the metaphorically male-female implements of pen/brush—paper/skin in a pseudo-sexual act.  Further still, most of the scenes involving the ritual between Nagiko and her father reveal a light, soft natural world of childhood—while her adult search for the perfect mate/companion takes place among swiftly moving images composed of a mixture of dark/light neon–often jarring–images.

Other modes of duality include that of East—West (as represented in the figures of Nagiko and Jerome, as well as by Nagiko’s Asian homeland versus the capitalistic, Western Hong Kong) and that of life versus death (the deaths of Jerome and the publisher versus the birth of Nagiko’s child).

Also noteworthy is the juxtaposition of the empowered and the powerless—and how that power is often transferred. Early in the film, the publisher holds sway over Nagiko’s powerless father (and indirectly to Nagiko, herself).  Nagiko loses power when she marries and the ritual comes to an end.  In her relationship with Jerome, however, she regains it—only to lose it again—like her father, to the publisher with Jerome’s death and the desecration of his body.

In the end, Nagiko acquires power thru the death of the publisher, her ability to place Jerome in his final resting place and the birth of her child—with whom she continues the tradition.


[1] Greenaway, P. (Director), The Pillow Book, (France: Cinepix Film Properties), 1996.

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