A small, golden pavilion on a gold-leaf lake, in a golden world relieved only by wooden walkways, smudges suggesting a mountain range, the green of lily pads and a few bamboo stalks. Then a flutter of red sycamore leaves, swept by a young acolyte slowly being driven mad by the perfect beauty of the pavilion.
A '50s coffee-shop set, with pearly vinyl quilted walls, that breaks away to a restaurant alcove where an older woman, a sexual sadist, is seducing her next young victim. They are surrounded by panels painted with huge, almost obscenely erotic orchids.
A young man committing seppuku (hara-kiri) on a gravel beach against a painted cloudy sky. Nearby is a tiny white shrine and a tilted arch. These are among the most striking scenes of "Mishima," which incorporates dramatizations of three novels by the late Yukio Mishima amid boldly stylized sets created for the film by Eiko Ishioka, the internationally acclaimed multimedia designer and photographer.
Never before has she worked as a film production designer, but at Cannes she received a best artistic contribution prize, along with the film's cinematographer, John Bailey, and its composer, Philip Glass. Now Ishioka, whose dazzling book "Eiko by Eiko" came out in late 1983, sees a whole new career opening up for her in films. But when she was approached by the film's director, Paul Schrader, she was hesitant about taking the plunge into production design.
"He gave me the second-draft scenario to read, and basically the structure of the movie seemed fresh for me," said Ishioka recently over lunch at the Bel-Air Hotel. Now in her 40s, the Tokyo-based Ishioka, whose English is better than she realizes, is as stunning as her designs. She was wearing a gray suit designed by Issei Miyake ("my friend and rival"), consisting of a remarkable, draped '20s-style skirt under a tailored jacket. Ishioka, whose late father was a noted pioneering graphic designer, combines a free, ever-questing imagination with traditional Japanese diligence.
"I asked him two questions before I decided to do the film. I asked him, 'Why do you need me as an artist for your movie?' Then I said that I wasn't a fanatic fan for Mishima, that I was like an ordinary Japanese audience for Mishima: 'Is this OK?--It means I'm not an expert on Mishima.'
"He said that this movie was to be made in a very innovative style. He had tried to find a production designer in America but decided he wanted to choose someone outside the film field. He wanted a fresh concept. I told him that I didn't have enough knowledge of technology for the job. He said it was not so difficult to find technical people--'We can find find someone to help you as a partner.'
"As for the second question, he said, 'This is \o7 my\f7 "Mishima," not Eiko's. What is important is to help me display \o7 my\f7 "Mishima." ' He didn't want to work only with Mishima fanatics, and I agreed 100% on that."
Ishioka gave her final decision only after Schrader selected veteran art director Kazuo Takenaka as her partner. "It was like an arranged marriage," she said. "If one of us doesn't want to work with the other, then we have an out. Takenaka wanted to work on the realistic and documentary parts of the film, and I wanted to work on the novels. But he has his pride; he's an older man and wanted to be more than just a partner. I understood that." (Takenaka's credit reads executive art director.)
At first, after intensive discussions with Schrader, Ishioka was intent on carrying out his ideas, but Takenaka told her that she must have her own concept. " 'Don't worry about describing Schrader's images,' he told me. It was very strong, very important advice. I was so shocked, but it opened my eyes, my mind--my spirit. Paul said, 'OK, try it.'
"My concept was built from the three novels, not from the scenario," said Ishioka, who was soon turning out scores of sketches. "I wanted to do a big presentation. I told Paul, 'If you don't like it, there is no meaning for me to continue.' I built a model for 'The Temple of the Golden Pavilion' at 1/50th scale. Then there were many, many discussions with Schrader and Bailey--talk, talk; talk many, many times."
Into this project Ishioka said she poured her "body and spirit. Almost 20 years as a graphic designer and art director, a designer in the theater, publishing, advertising and designing corporate identities.
"I built my own philosophy as an artist. I care about the relationship between the artist and the audience. Eiko is on the stage, but she's also in the audience. I want to judge my work from the audience. Eiko is my best audience. I'm like a commercial artist, not a fine artist who cares about patrons. I'm relating to the whole media. It comes from my training"
Although Takenaka did much of the rest of the picture, Ishioka had the overall responsibility as production designer and was deeply involved in re-creating Mishima's Western-style home, which was cluttered with European and American reproduction kitsch.