A three-year old girl with globular cheeks patiently allows her calligrapher father to brush letters on her face and lips, as he recounts the story of creation: "And when God saw it was good, he signed it." Gently, he turns her round to sign at the base of her neck. Several years pass with the ritual repeated, accompanied by a cheery song that had been popular when her parents were first in love.

An aunt gives her a diary (or "pillow book"), and so begins N's obsession with writing. The tender scenes are marred by the brusque visits of her father's publisher (Yoshi Oida), with whom he has a sexual relationship. Through the child's eyes, the father is forced to prostitute his body for his written work.

Grown into a beautiful woman, Nagiko (Vivian Wu) escapes an unhappy marriage with the misogynist office boy from the publishing house by fleeing to Hong Kong. She works as a model and seeks solace (and her absent parent) in a perpetual quest for calligraphers who will become her lovers and write on her body.

She tries unsuccessfully to print her own work with the publisher as a kind of revenge for the power he held over her father. Her lover, the polyglot translator, Jerome (Ewan McGregor), urges her to write on his body for "submission" to the reluctant publisher. Jerome is already yet another of the publisher's lovers. Nagiko agrees and the plan works, but she is overcome with jealousy and spurns Jerome.

Counseled by a disingenuous friend, the unhappy Jerome takes a supposedly temporary poison in order to win her back; her affection is restored, but the poison kills him. The publisher exhumes Jerome's body, for a gruesome harvest of his skin and her words. Disconsolate and enraged, Nagiko submits book after book of her work to the publisher, each chapter written on a different male body, some perfect, some dilapidated, all her lovers.

Finally she sends "Book 13, the Executioner" on the sumo-wrestler-like body of a man who slashes the publisher's throat. Nagiko returns to Japan where she gives birth to Jerome's child and the cheerful song of her childhood returns as she writes on the infant's face.


Majestic in its imagery, quirky in its plot, and adventurous in its artistry, this classic Greenaway film is an essay on communication, emotion, and memory. It also declares the impossibility of mutual understanding between any two peoples, much less two cultures, through sex, words, translation, or interpretation.

Facing death, the publisher reads Nagiko's angry proclamation that his homosexual exploitation ruined her father, her husband, and her lover. Nagiko is sincere and more narcissistic than homophobic, but each affair was more complex than her memory allows. For example, Jerome is voluntarily involved with the publisher before he offers his body for her cause; he poisoned himself when she rejected him.

We are less certain of the father. Giving full rein to her anger, jealousy, and love (of herself, as much as the others), Nagiko constructs a present and a past that absolve her of blame. Her ruthless search for lovers to satisfy her "needs" is a reversal of stereotypical gender roles. She is a powerful victim.

With liberal use of nudity and exquisite lettering in black, red, and gold, bodies become a sensual parchment. Sexual encounters play to stills from erotic literature. The surprising juxtaposition of races, languages, and images imply that every body is a text attempting to communicate with another. Flashbacks or concurrent memories appear in black and white, sometimes superimposed within small boxes set in the middle or to the side of the screen.

Humour is never far from the surface--in the exaggerated solemnity of the characters, the fantastic progression of events, Nagiko's disappointed designation of Jerome as a mere "scribbler" for the unadorned English he writes on her body, and the understated references to other films. "Romeo and Juliet" is mentioned as Jerome is given poison; one also recalls the "Silence of the Lambs" in the preoccupation with bodies and skin, and especially Greenaway's other work in the emphasis on nudity and the physical application of images and text to human form.


In English, Japanese, and French with subtitles

Primary Source

Columbia TriStar