The Color Schemes of a Biopic

Eiko Ishioka and Paul Schrader

 
 

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 Yukio Mishima novels chosen by Paul 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 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.

 
 

The story begins with chapter 1, “Beauty,” where the awkward young boy grows into a man, looking to change his position as a misfit in this world and embrace love and the goodness that life has to offer, the things that are beauty personified. For this section, Schrader chooses to adapt the 1953 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the story of a Buddhist acolyte (Yasosuke Bando) with a severe stuttering problem whose “deformity” prevents him from finding love, forcing him to always remain separate. He fixates on the golden temple where he is studying and eventually becomes intent on its destruction. Turning it to rubble blots out the false promise he can never fulfill. This action actually teaches him something about beauty, about how it’s best to halt it at its apex rather than let age diminish its luster.

 
 

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. John Bailey thought also of the color palette that designer Nando Scarfiotti had shown John Schlesinger 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. (Bailey had by then done three films with Nando, two of them directed by Schrader.)

 
 

From there, Schrader moves to chapter 2, “Art,” where Mishima, tasting his first blush of success, begins to ponder how to resolve the false and finite nature of beauty and realize the artist’s purpose of preserving said beauty. In his novel Kyoko’s House a young actor turned body builder (Kenji Sawada) realizes that despite his personal perfection, bodies decay. Art is nice, but it requires no sacrifice. He enters into an abusive relationship with a female gangster (Setsuko Karasuma) who begins to use his body as a living sculpture. Real blood is a greater expression of true beauty and art than the false blood spilled on a theatrical stage.

 
 

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 John Bailey 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. They 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 John 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 them  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.

In one scene, the light on a large Eugene 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.

 
 

Chapter 3, “Action,” where Mishima begins to question his role in the world. Words can express ideas, but like how beauty without art fades, so too do ideas go nowhere without action to back them up. The novel for this section is Runaway Horses, a later work about a young soldier (Toshiyuki Nagashima) who forms a cabal of like-minded youths to stage a revolution and restore Japan’s honor. As his plan falls apart, he tries one last action before turning his sword on himself. Here the fiction dovetails nicely with the reality, as we go into chapter 4, “Harmony of Pen and Sword,” which concerns itself entirely with Mishima’s last day on Earth, along with commentary taken from his last book of personal writing, Sun and Steel. (Again, fiction gives way to reality–though reality as seen by Yukio Mishima.)

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A Concept Built from Three Novels

Eiko at work on stage floor for set of the Golden Pavillion

 
 

Never before Eiko Ishioka had 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. Ishioka, whose late father was a noted pioneering graphic designer, combined a free, ever-questing imagination with traditional Japanese diligence. “He (Paul Schrader) gave me the second-draft scenario to read, and basically the structure of the movie seemed fresh for me,” said Ishioka.

 
 

Ishioka and George Lucas, executive producer of the movie

 
 

“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.’

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.’

 
 

Eiko at her desk reviewing classic woodblock prints for Mishima

 
 

“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.