A portrait of Japanese film costumier Emi Wada
Film, opera and ballet costumier Emi Wada has worked with some of the greatest Japanese and international directors in her career. Now nearly 80 years old she shows no sign of letting up, as she told K in a recent interview.
Emi Wada is unfailingly elegant, even in her casual clothes. Dressed in an oversized royal blue sweater with her silver hair swept into a sideways ponytail, the pioneering costume designer looks as poised at her home in Tokyo as she did when she stood on the podium at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1986, to accept an Oscar for her work on the movie Ran.
Though soft-spoken and diminutive in stature, Wada is known for her exacting eye for detail and tireless work ethic. She sketches the drawings for each of her elaborate creations and hand-dyes the fabrics to achieve, for example, the precise shade of scarlet for the heroine’s costume in Hero, or the brilliant jade tones for the gown that adorns the soprano in Turandot.
Drawing upon a deep knowledge of history and an epic sense of style, Wada has given visual shape to the sweeping narratives depicted by directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Peter Greenaway and Zhang Yimou. After more than 50 years creating couture for the cinema, opera, and theatre, Wada, 77, shows no signs of stopping.
“I used to think that I’d retire when I turned 70, but for some reason, I’ve been getting even more offers these days,” she said with a laugh, before rattling off a list of current projects. These include a staging of the play Mary Stewart in Tokyo, a possible film in France, and a production of the ballet The Peony Pavilion at New York’s Lincoln Center in July. “I intend to keep working until I run out of new ideas.”
Born into an affluent family in Kyoto, Wada had studied painting before applying her talents to costume and stage design. She had been impressed at an early age by the stylised grandeur of the city’s temples and shrines. The culture of her hometown has had a lasting influence on her sense of aesthetics and her work.
Wada got her first big break in movies, a commission to create the costumes for the American comedy Marco, in the early 1970s. Soon after, the young designer met Kurosawa at a movie premier and told him that he she had loved his Throne of Blood, which transposes the story of Macbeth to feudal Japan. When Kurosawa mentioned that he was thinking of directing King Lear, Wada replied, “Please think of me if you ever decide to do that.”
Years later, he hired Wada to design the costumes for Ran, which is based on Shakespeare’s masterpiece. The project took three years, with Wada producing three sketches for each character. “Every time I presented Kurosawa with a design, he would ask, ‘Do you have anything better?’” she recalled. Although the movie ran into problems with financing, Wada continued to work, pouring her own money into the construction of hundreds of hand-tailored costumes before the producers secured funding.
The characters Wada dresses tend to be larger-than-life figures, and she drapes them in sumptuous finery that displays a penchant for historical accuracy and imaginative flair. In the 2005 production of The First Emperor, an opera by Tan Dun directed by Zhang Yimou, she designed an opulent coronation costume for Placido Domingo that featured a train measuring more than five meters.
She based the vivid ensembles in the film House of the Flying Daggers on traditional Chinese designs but added accents such as bamboo hats, hand-woven in an irregular style from Kyoto, and impossibly long sleeves that envelope the actors in billowing swirls of silk brocade.
Wada has a reputation for going to great lengths to ensure the quality of the material she uses: “I can’t be sure of how a fabric was made unless I bring it myself,” she said. Like many Japanese growing up in the post-war era, she has a profound appreciation for traditional crafts.
“It’s important to work with fabrics that are made by hand – by a person,” she explained. “This is because costume design is not about fashion. It is meant to help create characters, and using handcrafted materials adds power and life to the film.”
While the movie industry in particular has seen great technological advancements over the years, Wada laments the declining level of “artistic imagination” in many of today’s productions. She sees the overall lack of creativity and appreciation for the arts as a modern epidemic.
I can’t be sure of how a fabric was made unless I bring it myself.
“There used to be many artisans who made fabrics but they are disappearing,” she said. Although she noted that a renewed interest in traditional crafts among young people in Japan has emerged in recent years, the current situation remains a “difficult time for artists.”
Ironically, Japan’s doyenne of costume design has spent the majority of her career working outside of her native country. Most Japanese producers commission designs for only the lead roles, opting to rent outfits for the other actors. Wada, however, only accepts projects that allow her to design the costumes for the entire cast and insists on maximum freedom. Her role, as she sees it, goes beyond making clothes. Her job is to help the director tell the story through images.
“My first experiences in film were with an American company (for Marco) and the French producer Serge Silberman (for Ran), so I established my way of working early on. I always talk things through with the directors and make aesthetic decisions based on the script,” she said.
That’s why she enjoys collaborating with avant-garde directors like Greenaway on works that are rich in subtext. The costumes she created for his staging of the opera Writing to Vermeer – which incorporated video in the production – play off the projections and function almost as a commentary on the psychological and emotional states of the characters. It helps to bring the interior drama to the fore.
By contrast, contemporary Japanese productions, Wada says, are rarely deep or provocative. “Many of the films made today are based on manga (Japanese comic books); I tend to choose productions that require more imagination.”
When asked to name her greatest asset as an artist, she answers without skipping a beat. “The people I work with,” she said, before concluding with some words of wisdom for the next generation of creators. “The world is becoming a more dangerous place, but we need to go back to a time when we valued art. Artists have to cooperate and support each other – to spread out internationally and across generations.”