Theatre Design & Technology - Spring 2021 - 8

Figure 3. The Turn of the Screw. Class Project.
1975. | Photo courtesy of Mitsuru Ishii.

Figure 2. Mitsuru Ishii with his mentor, Percy
Harris. | Photo courtesy of Mitsuru Ishii.

company, Toho Co., Ltd. in 1970. The
production became a smash hit and ran
for three months at the Imperial Theatre
in Tokyo, which was unprecedented at
that time. Theatre productions in Japan
were usually scheduled to run for only
one month. Two years later, Layton was
asked to revamp the musical by the
British producer Harold Fielding for the
London production. The only way for
Ishii to remain involved with the production was to go to London and enroll in
school with his own money.
Inspired by Layton's work, Ishii initially planned to study directing, but realizing his English skills were not good
enough to pursue a directing degree, he
changed his focus to design. One year
later in 1972, Ishii had an opportunity to
work as an assistant director and lighting designer on Man from the East. The
show was produced by Red Buddha
Theatre, a Japanese avant-garde theatre
troupe based in Paris at the time. The
show toured throughout Europe and the
U.S. for one and a half years, ending at
the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The world tour greatly motivated Ishii
to further his design studies, and he enrolled in the Theatre Design Course at
the English National Opera in 1975. The
Theatre Design Course was originated
and run by Margaret " Percy " Harris, and
her words influenced Ishii's aesthetic for
years to come. Ishii fondly remembers
Harris said to him, " There is no need

8 | THEATRE DESIGN & TECHNOLOGY | SPRING 2021

for you to emulate the British design
style. You must cherish your cultural
background. The most important aspect
of stage design is to develop our own
originality. Not to imitate existing styles "
(Ishii, 2020). Harris' words freed Ishii
from conformity that was ingrained in
him in a culture where individuality and
originality are sometimes secondary to
harmony as a guiding principle.
When Ishii returned to Japan in the
1980s, he was greeted by the idiosyncrasies of the collectivist society and
found it difficult to establish himself as
a freelance designer. In a society where
a sense of unity and peace tend to suppress individual ideas, designers were
and are still not trusted by their potential employers unless they belong to an

organization. To establish a foundation
for himself, Ishii first found a job at NHK
Art Co. Ltd., which was an affiliated company of Japan's sole public media corporation, NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai).
Ishii was hired as a freelance designer,
which allowed him to keep designing for
various national and international theatre companies. While at NHK Art, Ishii
worked on a number of period shows
and learned a great deal about Japanese
painting styles and traditional Japanese
architecture and props.
In 1986, his biggest breakthrough
came when he designed the set and costumes for The Tempest, which was directed by Gordon McDougall at Shoctor
Theatre in Alberta, Canada. The set consisted of legs made of slats and two organically shaped mounds that were made
of layers and layers of slabs. The slatted
walls were reminiscent of Japanese bamboo blinds, or sudare. In the background,
Ishii created a large Japanese sumie
wash painting.
Ishii explained that he and the director
discussed the importance of magic in the
show, and they wanted to showcase theatrical tricks that the Canadian audience
had not seen before. One of the examples
was to make Ariel a spider instead of a
harpy in Act III Scene iii. Spider is one of
the most famous Kabuki characters, and
making Ariel a spider allowed them to
use the old Kabuki trick of chisuji no ito-spreading thousands of spider webbings
made of rice paper from a hand. The costumes were a blend of Indian, Japanese,
and Western styles, exemplifying Ishii's
unique visual aesthetic. This production of The Tempest was a turning point
in Ishii's career. With the success of the

Figure 4. Scale Model of The Tempest. | Photo courtesy of Mitsuru Ishii.



Theatre Design & Technology - Spring 2021

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Theatre Design & Technology - Spring 2021 - Cover1
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