“She was a visionary,” says costume designer April Napier.
“Visionary” is a word tossed around too much sometimes, look no further than too many movie trailers. In the case of costume designer Eiko Ishioka, she was indeed a visionary in the truest sense of the word. She elevated art forms, including film, stages, and in the case of Apocalypse Now, even posters.
Below the Line recently spoke with Napier, who’s Kelly Reichardt’s go-to costume designer. Soon, audiences will see how she deepened the complexities and nuances of the relationships in Todd Haynes’ upcoming film, May December.
Over 20 years ago, Napier worked with another director known for their own style, Tarsem Singh, on The Cell. She collaborated with Ishioka, who handled the dream costumes, “those elaborate operatic, underworld” costumes. It was up to Napier to capture reality, working together with Ishioka on color and tone.
“It was a fucking legend,” is how Napier described the experience.
Of course, that’s how anyone in their right mind who’s seen The Cell would describe the costumes in the gorgeous film. They are as legendary as Ishioka, who also worked on Paul Schrader’s masterpiece, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and won an Academy Award for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Over the course of making The Cell, Napier found herself in awe of Ishioka, particularly her eye for texture. “She doesn’t speak very much English,” Napier says of the late costume designer. “I remember she had a really great assistant called Akiko, who was her kind of translator and was always her assistant costume designer. Those guys were so rad. We were talking one time, and I was like, ‘Damn, everything that Eiko does has so much texture, texture, texture, texture, pleated, pleated, pleated, pleated. I had a dream one time. I told her, ‘Oh my God, I had a dream last night that you and [fashion designer] Issey Miyake got married because of all the texture and pleats. And she was like, ‘Oh, I wish I could marry him someday.'”
Napier gained insight into Ishioka’s upbringing, and as perhaps a result, the beginning of her creative journey. “I told Akiko anything Eiko does just has so much texture,” Napier added, ‘And she said, ‘That’s because Eiko’s father was really strict in Japan, and every spring in Japan, they redo their shogi screens. Their windows are paper screens.’ I don’t know if this is why her costumes are textured, but she came from a very strict background where everything had to be perfectly flat. Every time that they redid the shogi screens, her father was really committed to the precision of the flat rice paper on a window.”
The legend sadly passed away in 2012, but the legend lives on in her work. It’s impossible to witness her work in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Cell, and The Fall and not be moved by the artistry and wonder about the beautiful mind behind all the loving detail. Fellow fans of Ishioka’s work can see costumes of hers at the Academy Museum, where thankfully, audiences will continue to discover the genius of the one-of-a-kind artist.
Indeed, she was a true visionary and, as Napier more appropriately described her, “a fucking legend.”