Seita Onishi is a self-made real estate millionaire whose buildings fight for space in the bustling centers of Japan’s great cities. Onishi’s heart, however, is somewhere else—at the lonely spot on Highway 46 in California’s San Luis Obispo County where James Dean died in his Porsche Spyder on Sept. 30, 1955.
Like the mysterious “Woman in Black” who, for 28 years, placed a red rose on Rudolph Valentino’s grave each year on the anniversary of his death, Onishi, 55, has made many pilgrimages to the place where James Dean died. Often he has left memorials to honor his fallen hero. On Sept. 30, 1981, Onishi dedicated a gleaming $15,000 chromium cenotaph. In the years since, he has added two tablets and a tiny bronze fallen sparrow.
For next year’s anniversary, Onishi hopes to do something grander. On that day—if all goes well—a giant sculpture 36 feet high will be dedicated to Dean at the site in the small town of Cholome. Onishi commissioned the work four years ago from the internationally renowned sculptor Yasuo Mizui. Since then, Mizui, 64, has been laboring on the 120-ton opus—carved from limestone—in a quarry near his home in Lacoste, France.
Called Wall of Hope, the sculpture depicts Dean’s head on one side and an abstract opening curtain on the other. It was created in pieces so that it can be dismantled for shipment to California. The hollow bust, roughly three times life-size, will break if anyone tries to remove it, says Mizui, and “infinite” replacement heads can be made from the mold. Except for a simple inscription, most of the space surrounding the head is blank. “I think there will be plenty of graffiti,” says Mizui. “We cannot stop this; it’s human nature. I want people to view it as a living piece of art.”
But some Californians seem to be taking a dim view of Onishi’s latest offering. The Hearst Corporation, which owns the land, and various state regulatory agencies have been slow to give Onishi the go-ahead. Still, Onishi is a man with a mission. Though the reclusive mogul does not speak English and gives few interviews, he explained his devotion to Dean on a card handed out at the 1981 cenotaph dedication. “James Dean was the brief, living manifestation of a new era,” it read. “There are some things, like the hatred that accompanies war, that are best forgotten. There are others, like the love inspired by this young actor, that should be preserved for all time.”