In one sense, the title of Eiko Ishioka’s new coffee table tome is a misnomer. A significant portion of the book is devoted to the innovative designer’s major film work, on Paul Schrader’s “Mishima,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and the recent Jennifer Lopez starrer “The Cell.” On the other hand, there is indeed something theatrical about all Ishioka’s work; her stylized, expressionistic creations tend to command center stage — whether there’s a stage around or not.
The new book is a sequel to an acclaimed previous collection of her print and advertising work. It’s divided into chapters for each film, theater or opera project. Impeccably reproduced photos and sketches accompany texts written by Ishioka herself that detail the genesis and execution of each project. Ishioka is not a refined prose stylist, but her writing has a clear, deadpan style that grows rather endearing, and it is far preferable to the academic pontificating that so often serves as text for art books.
Speaking of her costumes for “Dracula,” for example, Ishioka mentions her preference for drawing on imagery foreign to most designers: “Fashion designers strive to make the human body look beautiful, and if you’re concerned about making a figure the most appealing it can be, you won’t be turning to earthworms for a visual reference.” Indeed.
What’s most striking about Ishioka’s style is the wealth of references she draws on, not just Eastern and Western art and culture but, yes, earthworms and even more grotesque forms of animal life. Her work marries strict minimalism with a no less rigorous insistence on perfection in details: The simple red, white and black used for her brilliant set for Broadway’s “M. Butterfly” contrasted with the elaborate embroidery on the costumes, for example.
Ishioka has worked as set or costume designer on a wide array of projects, from Wagner’s “Ring” in Amsterdam to David Copperfield’s Broadway extravaganza, and brought to each a fertile imagination and the determination needed to execute her spectacular work. More than once, she details the battles fought to implement her vision.
As this book illustrates, the results are always worth the enemies made (usually temporarily) in the costume shop or the unions: She’s one of the most talented — and versatile — designers working in the performing arts today. From the elaborate, stylized Victorian gowns of “Dracula” to the severe, Robert Wilson-esque use of space and light on the Japanese opera “Chushingura,” Ishioka creates imagery that increases the psychological impact of a production without overwhelming its content (except perhaps on those occasions when the material itself is second-rate, such as “The Cell”). It’s to be hoped that this book will bring her work to the attention of potential new collaborators in Hollywood and elsewhere.