The first thing that one notices during the opening fifteen minutes of Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s magnum opus Dracula is the spectacular flesh-like armor worn by Gary Oldman’s titular character or more specifically its phenomenally saturated tint of red. Whether it’s Imperial Red or real rojo this bit doesn’t matter — the point is that it stamps to the back of the viewer’s mind and for the course of the movie his/her senses are constantly irradiated with different hues of the same color being incorporated into story’s visuals: blood, roses, robes, drapery, etc. The choice of these exact shades of red is not accidental, of course — it is made by the movie’s art director Eiko Ishioka and, for the better or for worse, this primary color and its dominant wavelength would be intertwined into her life and works for almost half a century.
Eiko Ishioka on the set of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. © 1985 American Zoetrope / Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved
Eiko Ishioka (石岡 瑛子) was born on July 12th, 1938 in Tokyo. Raised in the family of a graphic designer and a housewife, Eiko easily followed her father’ steps into the commercial art world although he somewhat discouraged her from doing so. See, as many other society circles in conservative Japan the artistic caste was not an exception in regards to its social dynamics: closed, harsh and quite lukewarm to women’s presence. Finding herself challenged by the incredulous environment the persistent young designer pushed hard during her first years working for personal care company Shiseido and soon after became the first woman to win Japan’s most prestigious advertising award. Then, similar to the scarlet sun-disc on the national flag the Ishioka’ star stood out brightly in the crowd when she faced her first real success in 1971 with managing Parco Shibuya’s advertisement series. These bold and innovative pieces of media would be ranging from bizarre off-beat humor (a black woman dancing next to a tiny Santa Claus) to strikingly erotic surrealism (Faye Dunaway, all dressed in black, peeling and eating a hard-boiled egg for whole 60 seconds). Young (and not so young) females are outlined as both her target group and means of expression. For example, along with big, unapologetic slogans like “Don’t Stare at the Nude; Be Naked”random girls from North Africa are usually set against dream-like, highly saturated backgrounds. One of the main goals here is a fusion of two juxtaposing concepts, a clash between the western archetypes and eastern aesthetics
The first person in the West that apparently noted Ishioka’s work was Taxi Driver’ screenwriter and famed director Paul Schrader. A self-professed Japanophile himself, Schrader finally managed to reach the pre-production of his dream project Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters — an ambitious and unusual biopic about the life of tortured poet Yukio Mishima. As the script required plenty of scenery directly taken out of Mishima’s novels the New Yorker decided to ask a native Japanese for designing the flamboyant yet minimalistic set pieces and he found one in Eiko’s. Her debut in the world of cinema left a quick and strong impression and soon after its premiere the movie is awarded with Best Artistic Contribution prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1985. The next year Ishioka steps into the music recording business by directing the artwork for Miles Davis’album Tutu alongside the iconic photography by the legendary Irving Penn.
A still from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. © 1985 American Zoetrope / Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved.
Charmed with her work on the Japanese poster of his infamous Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now US director Francis Ford Coppola reached Eiko to assign her to work ahead of the Costume Design department for his then-upcoming Gothic romance Dracula starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves and many more. Perhaps seeing this case as her first big Hollywood baptism Ishioka definitely unleashed her full potential by creating a magnificent amount of dress pieces for each one of the main characters. From the already mentioned suit of armor to the eccentric kimono of Vlad Tepes, from the delicate Victorian dresses to the scruffy straightjacket worn by Tom Waits’ Renfield the colors and shades of these costumes were soaking through the silver screen completing DP Michael Ballhaus’ exquisite camerawork. The reactions to the work were no less than positive and the movie was nailed with the Best Costume Design prize at the 65th Academy Awards in 1993.
Undoubtedly Ishioka met her artistic soulmate only when she finally encountered the Indian-born director of commercials and music videos Tarsem Singh Dhandwar simply known as Tarsem. Deeply influenced by classical and modern art Tarsem already made his name in the pop world by creating memorable impressionistic clips such as “Losing My Religion” and “Sweet Lullaby”. Now he was assigned to his first feature film — the dark serial killer extravaganza The Cell as the cast included Jennifer Lopez and Vincent D’Onofrio. As most of the movie’screen time was dedicated to long, dream sequences filled with intoxicating visuals and nightmarish characters Ishioka once again was given full creative control and the results were lavish — fantastic, unprecedented costumes set against gorgeous baroque settings as if they were coming right off Francis Bacon’s bad acid trips. Perhaps the most historical moment behind the scenes is the one when Miss Lopez asked Ishioka if she could remake her Neo-Gothic headpiece into something more comfortable for wearing to which the art director responded coldly: “No, you’re supposed to be tortured.”. Even though the movie wasn’t a particular success it led to another three collaborations between Ishioka and Singh: The Fall, Immortals and Mirror, Mirror.
An illustration for the movie The Cell. © 2000 Radical Media / New Line Cinema. All rights reserved
Apart from her successful cinema work Eiko Ishioka also made her name being the director of costume design for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, designing the costumes for the Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai shows as well as the ones for Grace Jones’ Hurricane tour in 2009 and even directed a music video for Bjork — “Cocoon” in which tiny red strings are winding around the Icelandic singer’s naked body until she is turned into a gigantic yarn ball. In a similar way the pancreatic cancer that Ishioka had during her last years had entwined her organism and she passed away on January 21st, 2012 survived by her husband and the rest of her family.