PRINT March 1984


An Interview with Eiko Ishioka, by Ingrid Sischy

EIKO ISHIOKA IS AN ART director; a pioneer traveling in big commerce. Her book Eiko by Eiko, published here last fall by Callaway Editions, Inc., New York, in association with Kyuryudo Art Publishing Co. Ltd., Tokyo, presents a survey of her work through all of mass media. The book includes over 2,000 color illustrations, and introductions by Akira Kurosawa, film director; Hiroyuki Itsuki, novelist; Seiji Tsutsumi, chairman of the Seibu group; Issey Miyake, fashion designer; Kenji Sawada, singer and performer; Takeo Nagasawa, advertising writer; Yoshiaki Tono, art critic; Haruki Kadokawa, publisher; Shigesato Itoi, advertising writer; Ryuichi Sakamoto, musician and composer; Kazumi Kurigami, photographer and cinematographer; Seigow Matsuoka, editorial director; Shinya Fujiwara, photographer and writer; Ikko Tanaka, graphic designer; and Isamu Noguchi, sculptor. This interview was conducted on Ishioka’s most recent visit to New York.

Ingrid Sischy: I look at the cover of your book that’s too big and heavy for me to read in bed. I know I’ve seen the tall, full-grown person before—I think I’d know Faye Dunaway anywhere. But what’s she doing there, half nun, half empress? Why is a Hollywood icon on your cover? In fact, why so many appropriated forms and figures, from America, Africa, India . . . throughout?

Eiko Ishioka: Why not? If I explain why with too much logical reasoning, it would be limiting. Japanese people often ask me about logical reasons for creativity, as do many Americans—so much so that I realize that sometimes the basic attitude toward creation is that you have to build some logical reason around it. But sometimes I want to forget about logical reasons. To answer your question I say, this is my generation. That’s one reason: my experience as a child, as a teenager, as a university student, and afterwards at work.

My basic question to you is, why must we, as Japanese artists, use only Japanese motifs? Since I was a kid, I’ve looked outside Japan. My father was a pioneer in graphic design. He never studied at a university, never studied graphic design; he studied by himself. Although he never had a chance to go to Europe, he was curious about Europe. When I was young I saw one of my father’s posters, and I recognized the influence of [Adolphe] Cassandre [1901–68], the world-famous French poster artist. My father probably bought a book of Cassandre’s work, and he observed. Cassandre was his teacher, I guess.

My parents’ life-style wasn’t a traditional Japanese one. We lived in a Western-style house, my mother wore Western clothes, the two of them took me to French restaurants, we saw American movies, and sometimes my father gave me very good American art books. I was born in Kobinatadai-machi and raised in uptown Tokyo, a cosmopolitan residential area. It wasn’t like downtown Tokyo’s traditional customs and life style. We lived Japanese-style Western style. Because my parents had never gone to Europe, they didn’t really know; they never touched a true cathedral, they never touched French food in Paris.

My memory up until I was 3 or 4 years old is of very happy things. Then World War II began and everything changed. We moved to the country, my mother made my clothes by hand, handbags, everything. I was one very strange kid wearing fashionable-looking clothes among country kids who were wearing traditional Japanese kids’ kimonos. The country kids looked at me and criticized. I was very, very lonely. The teacher was my only close friend, and every day after the lesson we would talk for one or two hours. Then I would walk back home alone, but on the way the country kids would kick and punch me. I hated the country then, the people, the mind, the life-style; I hated the tradition.

IS: And when the war was over?

EI: We came back to Tokyo right away. No clothes, no food, not many houses. Our house was OK, not destroyed, but my father was seriously ill with tuberculosis, and then my mother got sick with the same disease. All the food was American—dried eggs, and cans. I remember the Hershey’s chocolate. It’s the same way today—the chocolate color, the silver paper, the smell—like heaven, the taste of heaven. We never had sugar during the war. I remember also the jelly beans, which were very, very strange for kids, odd tastes and brilliant colors and smells. My first impression of printed things came from American packages. And my first strong impression of beauty came from American products. The first film I ever saw was a Hollywood animation. I was shocked, what I saw was so beautiful. It was a love story with a very chic, elegant grasshopper wearing a tuxedo.

In Tokyo then we couldn’t even get rice. Potato was the main meal—not a good potato, a sad class of potato. We hated opening our lunch boxes because of these bad-tasting potatoes. Once when I met Kurosawa, who made several movies during and just after the war, I asked, “What was lunch for the movie crew?”. I was very worried about what they ate because if the crew is hungry, nobody wants to make the movie. He said it was a very interesting question and that most of the time he chose locations outside Tokyo where there were still rice and other supplies. In Tokyo my mother would take wild grasses and plants to make something that wasn’t potato. We didn’t know salad; that came later. So you can imagine the dreamy quality of the food from the United States.

At night, we couldn’t sleep; trying to, we felt pain, itching, which continued for over a year. One day in the school playground the teacher said, everybody make a line. The teacher had DDT. P-s-s-h! P-s-s-h! My head, everybody’s head, was white, completely white, like a powder; we looked like priests. That night my lice were completely gone. The United States seemed like an ideal country for us young kids. Of course there was a big difference between our parents’ feeling for America and our feeling. We loved the chewing gum from the GIs, and we wanted blue eyes, blond hair, straight noses, everything American.

IS: Except for a brief period in the late ’60s, and except for a few artists working today, it has been rare to see the kind of spell of authority projected by the black women depicted in your book. In those images, especially the ones where the heads are isolated, even if I don’t know what, if anything, is being advertised—and in most cases I don’t—I’m glued by their strength. You give the models a direct beauty and power, which the American mass media has softened or homogenized.

EI: I wanted to find a striking motif for my message. I don’t say that a black face is stronger than a Japanese face, but it is my feeling as a Japanese that if I use an adult Japanese face to make my statement the Japanese won’t concentrate, won’t listen or look as much. So I’ve worked with black women, American actresses, sometimes Japanese kids. I wanted to ask the Japanese people, what is Japanese fashion? At the same time, I had to make a sensational fashion campaign for a client.

My work doesn’t begin with a bare canvas: all my jobs start with a request from the producer, the client—a director of a company, an editor, a curator, a choreographer, etc. People call me and say, “I need you,” we meet, and they explain what they need and why they need me. If I accept the job, I ask myself how I can get the public’s attention—the majority, not a select group. We don’t understand very much about the majority audience. Some are very educated, some are like gigolos, some are old women, embarrassed by certain types of things. We can’t understand perfectly what the majority of people is, but I feel I am one of the public. If I have an exhibition in an elite gallery, I know most of the guests, everybody has a kind of label; most of them say to me, “wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.” But I want to communicate not to this type of audience, but more to the majority—although I can’t say what the majority is, because its reaction is very strange and mysterious. I only know I am one of them.

Basically my job is anonymous. People don’t care about who Eiko Ishioka is. In fact the publication of this book in Japan is the first time that people will put this work together. People say to me, “I remember this one, this one—so this is your work.”

IS: I go from page to page in the book, from job to job, from client to client, and I’m struck that often I don’t know what is being advertised. In a way it’s almost anti-advertising, because you’re getting people to ask questions about their lives through advertising, about ourselves—who we are, what we’re doing, what we’re watching, wearing, reading, thinking.

EI: From the beginning I was very curious about this type of business. When I was asked to make a corporate image for Parco1 at the beginning of 1970, it was an unusual challenge. Mr. Tsuji Masuda, the executive director of this corporation, which is a division of the Seibu group, is a very unusual businessman. His idea for Parco is enlightened and expansive: if Parco’s business is doing well, it can subsidize cultural events—plays, concerts, exhibitions; it can publish books. I agree very much with this idea, so I wanted to sell Parco. I never felt guilty about selling Parco to the audience.

In 1970 we were very angry with the Japanese government’s policies toward the arts, especially toward graphic design. To the government mind design is not art, because it is outside the sacred studio and concerned with commercialism. The government doesn’t want to spend money to support culture; private industry has to support it. In the beginning Parco’s budget was tiny, so my medium was just 15 seconds. A 15-second TV commercial was like junk. In Japan most were 30 seconds, as most were in America, too. About 15-second commercials everyone said, this is junk art, worthless. But Mr. Masuda gave me complete freedom. We would talk about what Japan is today, what young people think about, what is important, where we are going. Fifteen seconds was his offer. I couldn’t have 16. However, just one second was enough time in which to ask, “What is Parco?”—like a poster, but in TV.

This technique is at odds with most Japanese strategies. Japan needs logical reasons: if you go into a record shop, on the record jacket or inside it you find an explanation about why the musician is so great, how he became a success. People say, “Ah, this artist is very great,” because of the piece written by a music critic. So my technique, of asking the question instead of giving the answer, frustrated everyone. The kind of audience that needs explanations never discovers anything by itself. It is lazy. We needed an active audience; we cut out the lazy audience.

IS: With the early commercials I notice an extended system of withholding of explanation. We’ve established that the viewer doesn’t know what the product is, but what’s perhaps even more disorienting is that you cut out the geography and the context, you cut out place and time.

EI: My message has to be strong and simple. It’s unnecessary to talk about the desert, what kind of desert, what is the camel doing, what are the Africans wearing. I don’t explain because if I explain too much about unimportant material, I can’t convey the important message. So I take out the explanations, then construct one simple drama or scenario. If I take everything out, people say, “What must I see?”

IS: You mean that the face becomes the place?

EI: The face is place, a face is society, faces are sexual relations between man and woman, faces are everything human. In one commercial I made there’s a woman standing in the savanna. Suddenly rain is coming down hard, and the face is very scared—not the usual face in advertising. Ordinary advertising just uses happy, stupid faces, happy but fake. But we, the audience, are clever. We understand because we are one of the public. If they make fake realism, we just think, “Shit, I don’t want to see this, forget about it.” We want to see something special, something new through advertising. Japanese advertisements are not like American ones; they’re considered media art. So sponsors spend enormous sums of money to make them. If the sponsor doesn’t understand what art is, the sponsor fails.

IS: History has shown that knowing how to weave a spell, how to make magic with a face or a word, how to shape responses from the masses can be a dangerous power. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will [1936]—or for that matter her African work—is an apt, if obvious, Pandora’s Box of media magic. Your media-machine power over me is very great. But I’m not after Wagner here—I’m after the relationship between your belief and the assignments you take on. Earlier, when we were talking about Parco, you said you took the job because you believed in it, and so you didn’t feel “guilty” influencing the audience. Power and morality are clearly kin for you.

EI: Yes, if I don’t agree with the subject or the product or the company’s attitude, I refuse the job. Yes, the designer’s position in society can be dangerous and of course the media can be dangerous. The media can also be charming. My statement is dangerous because it’s true.

Sometimes fine artists criticize commercial artists because of their clients. The fine artist wants to be a fine person, pure, but no one can be pure. Everybody—Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo—has a sponsor. Commercial art is more direct because the sponsor is a sponsor, the artist is an artist, they agree on terms, money, et cetera. Everything’s on the table, and it’s very clear. If people are concerned that commercial art is not fine art, I want to say here that at this moment commercial art is fine art. Forget about labels. All authentic artists—fine or commercial—have desire. It’s the process that’s different, and the concept, of course. For me the media is my canvas and a talented collaborator, a photographer for example, is my paint. At this point in the 20th century, how can people judge the border between oil painting for the canvas and the media canvas? I’m against using these types of words—commercial art, fine art—any more.

I want to approach the audience with my character. When I think about my job I say, “Eiko is the sender,” and, “Eiko is the audience.” I’m always aware of the connection between myself and the audience-Eiko. If I can be excited, or if I can agree with Eiko’s job, the work’s a success. This is simple logic. I ask the audience-Eiko, “What do you think?”, and if the audience-Eiko agrees with the creative-Eiko’s goal, I do it.

IS: Neither of us has very much time for hierarchical borders. You pay as little attention to art boundaries as to geographical ones.

EI: I don’t want to stay with just one style or technique. I can’t. Some artists do the same thing all the time, so that people will realize, “Ah, this is an Andy Warhol.” These artists remain stuck in their own character, and that’s the easiest way to be. But when I was young I decided I didn’t want to use just one style to describe my character. That’s too limiting, too logical. I don’t want to just ego-draw, saying this is my art, look how talented I am. That’s very easy. I’m not interested in a closed, select field. Like doing portraits and showing in a beautiful gallery.

IS: Why is most contemporary design so awful and tired?

EI: When I was in my twenties I asked, what is graphic design? In my thirties I asked, what is art direction? And now in my forties I ask, what is art? As a student I attended an international design conference in Tokyo. Many famous designers came from New York, Switzerland, in fact from everywhere. The lectures as good as said, “This is graphic design, this is architecture”—but it was their design, not mine. I thought about the fact that I must have my own design philosophy—I didn’t want to follow some other person’s, whose character and personality would be completely different from mine. I didn’t want to follow some group of superstar designers. Most were European, some American. I’m Japanese, so I wanted to develop, by myself, a new graphic design, a new possibility for art direction. Japanese graphic designers are still doing very traditional graphic design, like New York designers. Boring. One of the most famous New York graphic designers told me recently that the best-paying jobs are annual reports. That’s like cleaning up a mess on a desk. It makes design a cleaning woman—designers don’t have to care about content or ideology, about anything except cleaning the room, cleaning up for an annual report. They don’t have to worry about the most important subjects of the day; they can just care about style and technique.

IS: What isn’t just cleaning? What do you care about?

EI: I look at Japanese society, and New York, and if design is just cleaning, I doubt if it’s necessary. The question is what design really is necessary. Ordinary designers may have beautifully shaped glassware in their houses, and have good taste and eyes that can choose beauty. But these aren’t necessarily strong eyes. If I visit a designer’s office, it’s beautiful, white, with very good taste in furniture and coffee cups. Once I smudged a white surface, and the assistant said, “Don’t do that.” This is not necessary design. Color combinations are superficial, the beautiful shapes of beautiful white things are not necessary if they’re just technical. The most important things are not technical. Designers have to have some important statement to make through design. If they don’t, the designs don’t have any meaning; they become just accessories, weak—“Such and such is the newest thing”. . . Technique is just technique; it’s not a final purpose. If I don’t have enough technique, I can’t get the kind of effect I want, so technique is important; but it has to be behind creativity, behind philosophy. We mustn’t forget that people can drink water very nicely with just bamboo grass made into a cup. This is the spirit of design.

IS: The titles of your campaigns are all important messages in themselves: Women! Turn Off Your TV Sets! Women! Close Your Magazines! [1975]; A Model Is More than Just a Pretty Face [1975]; Spring is More than Just Sunny Days. School is More than Just a Diploma. A Mountain Is More than Just Its Height. . . . [1975]; The Day We Changed the Channel to Watch Commercials: The Age of Toshi Sugiyama [1978]; and Men! Let’s Become More Beautiful for Women! [1976]. What were you saying in your campaign The Nightingale Sings for No One but Herself [1976]?

EI: Japanese customs still continue: a woman can’t look too strong. Strong eyes mean strong confidence. The average Japanese woman can’t look people in the eye. She has to be behind a man, passive for a man. This is the reason women don’t look with strong eyes toward a person. I wanted to tell Japanese women, please look with strong eyes. Please think with strong confidence in life. The woman I worked with in the campaign is not just a New York model. The expression on her face is completely different from a Japanese woman’s. But I don’t want to talk about black is black, white is white, it’s not good manners. Through this campaign I wanted to say, “Please look.” Today, still, 99 percent of the art directors and designers in Japan are men. Japanese women are very conservative. They still have the same fears: “What can I do if I don’t get married?”. They still have fears in their relations to men, nothing has changed, they’re caged birds. Still geisha. The copy in this campaign, The Nightingale Sings for No One but Herself, is transposed from a famous 18th-century haiku poem in the style of Buson [Yosano]. My message is that women still want to be the teacher’s pet, and the teacher is the man. When the black models that I chose came to Tokyo, they asked, “Why did you choose us?”. But why not? I don’t care about black, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, American. I don’t care. When I need someone to describe my message, I can choose from Africa, from India, from New York, from anywhere. The models said that in New York they usually don’t get the type of job that shows a strong image of personality and inner strength. They get the auditions, but not the jobs.

IS: Another campaign is titled Don’t Stare at the Nude; Be Naked [1975]. Was your message a critique of the skin business?

EI: You see so many pictures of nudes; their meanings can be so different. This was an early ’70s campaign for Parco. At that time many clients and art directors, all of them men, used nudes, nudes, nudes, but nudes that had a completely different meaning from my type of message. These men just wanted to cause a shock and get attention—just like the way they use a man’s muscle. The models were usually Playboy types, opening their mouths like coquettes. In the case of Don’t Stare at the Nude I wanted to point out how stupid male society is. The woman wasn’t a typical Playboy type of model/ seducer. I wanted to criticize. The scenario is symbolic: the almost naked woman looks strong and beyond the audience, and then a man suddenly interacts, rudely, disturbing her thoughts. Actually I wanted her to be completely naked, and she agreed, but then Japanese censorship didn’t allow it. A shame because now it’s not perfect.

IS: What you say about your work is a clear, almost political argument for an assault on the senses. Yet it is a celebration of nonviolence.

EI: I need a strong impact because my work appears in the street or subway or in department stores—in busy circumstances, not in quiet, fancy galleries or controlled architectural spaces. My context is like junk, like Times Square. My competition is tough. My wish is that busy passersby stop to look at my work, even for just a second. I must be conscious of time, because busy people are always thinking of other things. If someone looks at the poster for one second, it’s a success, but three seconds, five seconds, is perfect. I have to think how to get them to stop. This is very hard creativity.

I don’t like violent subjects or expressions, although blood and violence are the quickest way to get attention. But they’re too easy, and it’s not good manners to communicate to people in this way.

IS: It’s as if there were some kind of two-sided mirror between modern Japan and America, a mirror that commingles real traffic between the two cultures with their reflected images. Two phantasms have caught up with both of us and with each other—that of the future and that of the past. Our American tradition of invention—our tradition of the new—as well as our invention of tradition—our culture—have indeed melted into the same pot. We’ve set the table, but we keep going out “for Japanese.” Our pressure seems comforted by your traditional food. But we notice the plastic sushi in the window and we smile. Perhaps we smile because from the other side of the mirror, through our partial view, you offer the way through tradition and the way through invention.

EI: Please understand it’s not so different between Japan and your country. People talk about what is original and what is Oriental. My answer is that if this is a table with five artists from different countries—one from Britain, one from Germany, one from China, one Japanese, one Swiss—and someone puts a white cube on the table, we will all recognize it because by now it’s like the egg, a very common, international motif. Eggs are consumed by poor people, rich people, middle class people, Japanese eat eggs, Tibetans eat eggs. I want to use international subjects. What is international today? Hair [1967] was. The basic concept of Hair was about freedom; they didn’t care about using a German or American. My friend was chosen for a main part in the German production, he’s Japanese. I want to use international, talented people as my paints, many different media for my cameras. I want to use my creativity as an art director; to me, art director means artist.

In the past Japanese artists wanted to appear in the West because we had a big complex. The Japanese lost the war, which meant we lost our point of view as Japanese. The artists who created great reputations in Western countries wore traditional kimonos at parties and used geishas for posters, because they understood that that was what the West felt was “authentic” Japan. The West wanted Japanese mascot motifs. They weren’t interested in the modern part of Japan, which meant Westernization, Americanization. They didn’t look at what was happening to Japan, or to the Japanese, at their fear or pain, at how close East and West really are to each other. I didn’t want to be this type of Western mascot.

Of course our traditional culture is important to us, but Japan is such a tiny, isolated country that we’ve always looked outside it to see what is happening. Anyway, so much Japanese culture is Chinese; anyway, Japan was imitating Europe at the turn of the century. The young generation in Japan doesn’t care too much about the differences between America and Japan or about East meets West. The 20-year-olds got tougher, they don’t think so seriously about traditional Japan, they buy Indian things. We must both look more seriously, be more careful—our young people are very different from their elders. They have no experience of hunger.

IS: If you could only name one artist who you are most interested in, who would it be?

EI: Leni Riefenstahl. People talk so much about the relationship between Hitler and Riefenstahl. That’s a subject, of course, and a question. They criticize her for allowing her talent to be used for politically despicable purposes, for not escaping from such a dangerous situation. She wasn’t stupid, but she didn’t understand. It’s very easy to think that people can or can’t escape. I can’t say. I’m not sympathizing with her, but I want to observe, I want to understand her because of her special talent as a woman. We must look hard, strong, and carefully before we can judge what is wrong and what is right. I want to look at her very carefully until she dies, and I want to know what her life was. Only then can I say something about her.

Riefenstahl is a visual type of person. She is not a writer like Susan Sontag, she is a completely different type of woman. About her African photographs people say, “Why didn’t Leni Riefenstahl take pictures of the sick, the dirty, the poor? Many Africans are very poor. Why didn’t she take pictures describing Africa’s poverty?”. But this is dangerous to me, because I agree with her view of Africa. People say that Africans are poor too easily. They think Africa is just Biafra. But Africa is a kaleidoscope, like Japan, so Leni wanted to say, Africans are strong and beautiful and can look you in the eye. This was her point. Critics asked why she didn’t describe the hunger, the starvation; some of them want to see Africa just as starvation. This is a ridiculously limited attitude toward African people. We have to have equalization for true civilization.



1. Parco, Eiko explains in her book, has no American equivalent. It is a complex consisting of "fashion boutiques, specialty shops, bookstores, gourmet restaurants, theaters and exhibition galleries under one roof. . . .