James Junichi Murakami of Santa Monica, a respected art director and production designer for film and television, passed away on Dec. 15 at the age of 91.
In 2015, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Art Directors Guild. Other honors for art direction include Academy Award and BAFTA nominations in 2009 for “Changeling,” a Primetime Emmy win in 2005 and nomination in 2004 for “Deadwood.”
Murakami was born in Sacramento during the Great Depression and spent his childhood in Campbell, Santa Clara County. At the start of World War II, he and his family were incarcerated along with other Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.
After the war, the family moved to Venice, where Murakami attended Venice High School and later studied at the Chouinard Art Institute with the goal of designing for motion pictures. At that time, it was almost impossible to find work at the studios without some connection. So, like many young designers, he spent the next three years working for an architect as a delineator and consultant.
With the startup of television, there was a shortage of set designers. With the help of a former instructor, Murakami was able to get employment at ZIV Studio. This was the start of his career in motion pictures and television. He spent many years in various studio art departments until he was offered a television special to design. More soon followed, which gave him the opportunity to work with some of the greatest art directors and production designers.
Murakami’s first film as an assistant art director was for Dean Tavoularis on “The Godfather: Part II” (1974). He also worked with Tavoularis on “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “One From the Heart” (1981), among others.
In 1992, Murakami was hired to work for Henry “Bummy” Bumstead on the first of many films, all directed by Clint Eastwood. From the western town in “Unforgiven” (1992) to the Russian space station in “Space Cowboys” (2000), Murakami was a vital part of the team. He and Bumstead shared the production design credit on their last film together, “Letters From Iwo Jima” (2006).
Murakami’s other credits as set designer or assistant art director included such films as “Sneakers” (1992), “Groundhog Day” (1993), “Rising Sun” (1993), “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993), “Jade” (1995), “The Postman” (1997), “The Princess Diaries” (2001) and “The Scorpion King” (2002), as well as the TV series “Charmed” (2000).
Murakami continued his career as the production designer for Eastwood, designing “Changeling” (2008), “Gran Torino” (2008), “Invictus” (2009), “Hereafter” (2010), “J. Edgar” (2011), “Jersey Boys” (2014), “American Sniper” (2014) and finally, “Sully” (2016), after which he retired.
He received Art Directors Guild nominations for best production design for “American Sniper,” “Gran Torino,” “Changeling,” and “Deadwood,” and won the Hollywood Film Award for Production Designer of the Year for “J. Edgar.”
Murakami was also the production designer for “We Said No! No! A Story of Civil Disobedience,” Brian Tadashi Maeda’s documentary about resistance in the camps, which includes dramatic re-enactments of incidents at Tule Lake.
Survivors include his wife, Ginger; daughter, Patricia Murakami; stepson, John (Hannah) Pahia of Hawaii; stepdaughter, Sandee (Peter) Graziano of Wisconsin; sister, Yuri Lily Joko; sister-in-law, Ethna Murakami of Ireland; nieces and nephews.
Funeral service will be held on Saturday, Jan. 7, at 11 a.m. at Koyasan Buddhist Temple, 342 E. First St. in Little Tokyo.