Remembering Eiko Ishioka

Posted by · 6:02 pm · January 30th, 2012

I’m occasionally struck by the word-economizing way some people refer to the Best Costume Design Oscar as, simply, Best Costume: a minor, grammatically sound abbreviation that nonetheless skimps on a rather telling word. Almost any film, from studiously researched period pieces to Target-clothed contemporary works, is costumed — but not every film is designed, its every shred of fabric selected and shaped to serve interdependent demands of character, atmosphere and directorial sensibility, while affording the designer a visible creative identity too.

Though chameleonic flexibility is prized, indeed required, of those who dress films across any number of genres, periods and guiding aesthetics, cinema’s greatest costume designers are those whose artistic signature — no less than that of a revered fashion designer — is present in idiosyncratic stylistic details that connect otherwise vastly disparate projects. Eiko Ishioka, the gleefully cracked design genius who passed away last week at the age of 73, was one such artist: whether applied to a lavish Gothic period nightmare or a sleekly futuristic psycho-fantasy, her film costume work is bound by common forms, features and fetishes that build up to their own kind of auteur watermark.

Little but Ishioka connects, say, two films as visually opposed as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Immortals,” yet her presence is enough to form an intangible kinship between them: their shared sense of color-led carnality, their deranged use of pattern as anti-reality portal, their witty insertion of incongruously modern haute couture flirtations into otherwise airtight historical story worlds.

If her garments often seem to be making wider, wilder thematic readings of the films wearing them than is usually the remit of costume designers, that’s because Ishioka herself was an all-purpose artist: as a revered graphic designer and art director, as generously showcased in gallery and theater environments as on screen, her relationship to broader mise-en-scène can only have been a mutually permeable one.

Indeed, with a CV that includes everything from Miles Davis album covers to Bjork music videos to the Beijing Olympic Games, Ishioka’s infrequent adventures in film costume represent but one chapter of her career — though it’s a richly illustrated one. You might be surprised to learn she boasts just eight feature film credits. Four of them, of course, are with another treasurably demented stylist, Tarsem Singh, at the helm — a quartet of collaborations that rivals any recently celebrated director-DP pairing for allied focus and oeuvre-defining singularity.

Perhaps she worked just little enough to remain inspired. Perhaps her medium-hopping versatility was costume design’s loss (oh, if only she’d found time to hook up with Almodovar!). Either way, what she gave us — the bloodied swathes of silk in “Dracula,” the dreamily skewed globalism of “The Fall,” the Gaga god armor of “Immortals,” the malefic masks and collars of, well, the lot — is all gold.

Ishioka’s 1992 Academy Award for “Dracula” was perhaps the first technical Oscar win I ever got truly invested in and excited about — the first time I was conscious of individual craft being evaluated, divorced from the surrounding film (which is pretty damn fantastic as well, mind). It remains, alas, her only nomination to date. Always more easily impressed by dutifully accurate period service than less easily explicable, more intuitive visions, the costume branch and Guild alike have shied away from the exquisite insanity of her work with Tarsem; last week, “Immortals” was the latest casualty of this conservatism. (Hey, we tried.)

Happily, Ishioka has left us with one gift still unwrapped: Tarsem’s fairytale riff “Mirror Mirror,” which opens in March and promises, if nothing else, to showcase the late designer in all her beautiful, bonkers glory. If the production still below is to be believed, this unwitting swansong will be most appropriately attired.  

Finally, since pictures really do say an awful lot of words in this context, a quick pictorial stroll through Eiko Ishioka’s screen work: her production design of Paul Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (for which she shared a Cannes award), and her costume designs for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “The Cell,” “Immortals” and “Mirror Mirror.” 

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For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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