Eiko Ishioka: A Personal Sketch in Four Scenes


The cherry trees outside the stages of Tokyo's Toho Studios were in full bloom on the spring day in 1984 when Eiko Ishioka strode across the sets she had designed for Yukio Mishima's novel “Kyoko’s House." Greeting me she said, “John-san, when we finish the filming I am taking you to a restaurant for a special Japanese meal.” During the production of Paul Schrader’s film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, I had shared many meals with Eiko, most of them from a bento box and washed down with a paper cup of green tea. Meals eaten during a film production share one common trait worldwide: haste. I knew that the impeccably stylish and cool Eiko was suggesting something more than food. Several weeks later we wrapped the film with exterior scenes on northern Honshu, shots of Mishima addressing assembled Army cadets from a balcony, moments before he commits seppuku.

Ken Ogata as Yukio Mishima, addressing the cadets.

Eiko honored her promise about the meal. She already knew how eagerly I had embraced many aspects of Japanese culture during the months of our production: even my earnest struggle to learn dozens of the Kanji characters in Japanese script and how they had developed out of a Chinese pictographic origin. One day I told her that Carol and I were collectors of Southwestern Indian Pueblo pottery, so she guided me to a Parco department store that was exhibiting recently unearthed very early Japanese pottery from the island of Hokkaido, pottery that she said bore its Korean influences. Eiko had a kind of carte blanche at the Parco chain, having spent most of the previous decade as a prestigious designer for the chain. She had moved on when Paul Schrader offered her the position of costume and production designer for his film of the life and work of novelist/political activist Yukio Mishima.

By the spring of 1984 Eiko Ishioka was one of the most sought after art director/designers in Japan. She hardly needed to throw herself into what was widely expected to be a controversial film project. Moreover, she would be working with a traditional film art director, Kazuo Takenaka, whose feature credits as designer went back to 1960. Mr. Takenaka was to design the biographical parts of the film and Eiko was to design sets and costumes from the three Mishima novels chosen by Schrader, in scenes that parallel key events from Mishima’s life. What could easily have been both a generational and aesthetic chasm between Eiko's and Kazuo's visions became, in fact, a close collaborative bridge across the film’s several styles.

The luncheon that Eiko offered me that afternoon remains one of the most memorable meals I have ever enjoyed—but not because of the sophistication of the food. It was Eiko’s gracious, expansive presence that highlighted the menu. She guided me to one of Tokyo’s most elite Kaiseki restaurants. Like Noh or Kabuki theater, like Sumi-e (ink painting) or Yakimono (pottery and porcelain), the ritual of the Kaiseki meal is a window into the Japanese soul, a close partner to the famed tea ceremony. A Kaiseki meal consists of many small courses, all seasonally dependent, incorporating delicate garnishes and colors and often served in signature historic pottery vessels, a kind of tutorial in the history of Japanese taste-- and pottery. So it was on this day.

Eiko always dressed in black, years before it became de rigueur in the Manhattan art world. She told me it was to free herself from the “pressure” that wearing color made on her in her work, work that was always wild in its chromatic juxtapositions and rhythms. This “wildness,” even savagery, is expressed full force in the costumes she later created in her four films for Indian-born director, Tarsem Singh.

Jennifer Lopez in “The Cell.”
“The Fall.”
Julia Roberts in “Mirror Mirror.”


Sitting across from Eiko in an intimate dining room in the heart of bustling Tokyo, waiting the first course of Kaiseki, amid the quiet elegance of traditionally clad servers, I found respite from the intense pressures of our production. The ambitious scale of Eiko’s sets and the challenge of working on a film in a language that Schrader and I did not understand was formidable enough; but it was the cauldron of political controversy that erupted as we began filming that was the real pressure cooker. To the political right wing, Mishima, and his plea to eschew the West and return to traditional Japanese values, was a secular saint whom we were defiling with cinematic intimations of homosexuality; to the liberal, cultural elite who had championed his early novels and plays, his later political theatrics, culminating in a very public, ritual suicide, was a lingering embarrassment. In the early weeks of production we had filmed most of the scenes of Mishima’s youth in black and white, alternating with many of the stylized scenes Eiko had designed. These scenes were done in secure locations and on studio stages. In the last weeks, however, we no longer had the cocoon of Toho Studios' gates; we were thrust out onto the public streets and squares.

Toho Studios administration had caved to certain entrenched pressures and wanted us off their lot. Many of the Japanese filmmakers that Paul, producer Tom Luddy, Alan Poul and I had wanted to meet, iconic ones like Kon Ichikawa and the venerable Akira Kurosawa, avoided us. The exception was Toshiro Mifune, known as a maverick, who allowed us access to his own stages in order to film the sets of Runaway Horses. But the escalating pressure had taken a toll on us. There were rumors there would be right wing demonstrations, even violence, against our production. Many of the Japanese crew was anxious, wondering if they would be blackballed in such a consensus society--- but Eiko was unflappable. She was already a veteran of societal disapproval. In the early 80s, a dynamic and outspoken woman was still an anomaly in the arts. An ethos of non-assertiveness for women was the norm. Eiko dared to raise her artistic head above the pack and say what she believed.


During the lengthy preproduction of Mishima (a near on and off again affair, partly due to literary rights negotiations with Mishima’s widow) Paul, Eiko, Kazuo, and I explored numerous possibilities of how to structure and differentiate the periods of Mishima’s life, and how to juxtapose these real life events with parallel ones from three of his novels: Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses. Even more than most writers, the biography of Mishima’s life is reflected in his work. It was an easy decision to film the actual biographical scenes in black and white, with lighting and compositional styles that honored the evolving tradition of Japanese cinema. To this end, Paul and I watched many classic Japanese films in the Toho screening rooms.

The events of the last day of Mishima’s life suggested adopting another style. On November 25, 1970 Mishima and several of his his cadets arrive at Army headquarters in the heart of Tokyo and take the commandant hostage. Mishima demands to speak to the assembled soldiers. He is jeered as he exhorts them, speaking from the balcony of General Mashita’s office; he retreats inside and prepares for ritual seppuku.

Paul and I decided to shoot these scenes of Mishima's final day in 35mm Eastmancolor (the Japanese camera crew told me they were excited about using Kodak rather than Fuji film stock). We further decided to shoot these events, up until the death scene, in a documentary, handheld style. I alternated shooting this last day with my Japanese camera operator, Toyomichi Kurita, who had just concluded his advanced cinematography studies at the AFI. Toyomichi, a quiet but intensely eager young man, has gone on to a distinguished career in the United States, having photographed films for directors Alan Rudolph and Tyler Perry. The dramatic suicide itself was photographed in an Ozu-like style with locked off camera. Only the moment of death departs from this with a dolly/zoom.

Next, we had to decide on an approach to best dramatize the three novels which alternate with the two biographical styles of Mishima’s life. Here lay the crux of Eiko’s contribution, easily the most challenging part of the film, the one most fraught with potential missteps, but also the one most offering a breakthrough aesthetic. The color scheme of the first novel presented itself easily enough. Eiko explained that the Golden Pavilion of the title was a legendary, but fragile wooden edifice in Kyoto, often rebuilt after periodic fires. The temple was a spiritual idea as much as a physical edifice. The gold leaf that Eiko chose to cover the set walls and floor, stretching around three curved walls and over the floor, created a limbo environment broken up by green walkways and a bamboo garden. The robes of Mizoguchi and fellow acolytes were in black.

“Temple of the Golden Pavillion.”
The temple reveals its painful beauty to Mizoguchi.
Eiko at work on stage floor for set of the Golden Pavillion.

Kyoko’s House takes place in the 1950s, a period still very much under the cultural influence of the American Occupation. Eiko offered us a palette of 50s pastels that also featured pink and black. Think of the trope of fuzzy dice that hung from the dashboard rear view mirrors of Detroit cars, and of the stripped down aesthetic of Scandinavian interior design. I thought also of the color palette that designer Nando Scarfiotti had shown John Schlesinger and me for Honky-Tonk Freeway (a splayed roll of Necco wafer candies). Eiko promoted the idea of these pastel colors; she knew also the high regard that Paul had for Nando. (I had by then done three films with Nando, two of them directed by Schrader.)

Kyoko's House.
Kyoko's House.

Military cadet black, pure white, and blood red are the dominant colors Eiko choose for Runaway Horses, the novel set in the unrest of the 30s, amid an attempted coup and assassination inside the army hierarchy.

“Runaway Horses,” kendo studio.
“Runaway Horses,” prison set.

Searching for a way to separate these fictional scenes of the novels from the events of the last day (since both were to be done in color) Paul, Eiko, Tom Luddy and I met with engineers from Sony who had recently developed an analog HD video system. Photographing the scenes from the novels in HD video seemed a natural way to establish a “look” different from the 35mm. color scenes of the last day. It was quickly obvious that the intense chromatic density and subtlety of Eiko’s sets and costumes would be poorly served by the limitations of this cutting edge but still embryonic  video medium. We resolved to shoot the novels on film as well—but with mostly undiffused and harder edged light to preserve the rich blacks that only film could capture, a lighting style Paul and I had chosen for American Gigolo; it was by then a retrograde style in an age of  increasing soft light. Eiko presented the physical design of the sets to us in near schematic sketches that defined the lines and bones of the sets. The final sets proved to be every bit as reductive, even elemental, with geometric forms and saturated colors creating a stage-like theatricality as the set pieces and walls shift, even collapse.

“Runaway Horses,” the cadets conspire.
“Runaway Horses” a solemn oath, taken before an askew Torii.

In one scene, the light on a large Delacroix wall painting dims to reveal a Beckett-like woods outside: an unlikely mash-up, but pure Eiko. The final scene of Runaway Horses unfolds on an actual beach in pre-sunrise light. Eiko transposed blood red painted rocks from the stage set to the location in order to introduce theatrical artifice into the real world. Here, at a cliff edge, facing the rising sun, the cadet Isao commits seppuku.

A trailer for the film gives glimpses of Eiko’s sets and costumes as well as her checker boarding style. Warning: the trailer’s hyperventilated narration almost subverts any close viewing.


Eiko Ishioka died of pancreatic cancer on Saturday January 21, 2012, in Japan. She had been lauded with awards worldwide: among them an Oscar, a Grammy , and several Tony nominations, as well as creating costumes for the 2002 Winter Olympics and the Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai. She was awarded, along with composer Philip Glass, a special artistic achievement award from the 1985 Cannes Film Festival for her work on Mishima. Eiko maintained a hallmark purity toward her Japanese aesthetic roots even while embracing the full range of contemporary Western styles and techniques. Up to the end, photos of her at work on her last film, Tarsem’s Mirror Mirror, show her intense focus, though she must have been suffering. Her turbaned head cannot conceal her wan figure.

Eiko in the costume shop “Mirror Mirror.”

But I prefer to remember the Eiko Ishioka I sat with on a late June day in 1984, in a quiet setting of her choosing. As each course of Kaiseki was presented, Eiko examined it closely, speaking to me of the metaphor of the meal. I was reminded of my own experience of listening to a Catholic priest intoning the ritual of the old Latin Mass. Eiko’s delicate fingers cupped each pottery vessel like a chalice as her soft but clear voice sounded a kind of chant.

Eiko at her desk reviewing classic woodblock prints for “Mishima.”

Note: The Criterion Collection has remastered Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters in a deluxe 2 DVD box set. It includes several interviews, including one with Eiko. Like all Criterion sets, the many "extras" (including a film by Mishima), place the movie into a larger  cinematic context.

Criterion.com—Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters link



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