An Interview with Oscar-winner Emi Wada



Emi Wada won an Oscar for costume design for the 1985 film Ran, directed by Akira Kurosawa. She will be visiting the UK this month with the Chinese National Ballet when they perform at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Emi Wada

Could you tell us what costume design entails?


It involves expressing the world of a character in a film or play from the beginning to the end, through costume.I start the process by focusing on characters that appeal to me. It may be a villain who is not the main character, but I begin with what I find attractive and create my own world in this way.

What was it that got you into costume design?

When I was 20, I married the TV director Ben Wada, which led to me being asked to design the stage effects and costumes for the plays he was involved in. As an art student I had originally wanted to become a painter, but as I experienced how interesting it was to be involved in a theatrical production and as a steady flow of offers of work came from people who had watched my husband's plays, I have continued with this work ever since then.




What challenges are there in making costumes for period dramas? How do you choose your material?

Whether it is for operas, films or plays, the important thing is the texture of the material. I often make the materials myself, but when I use a piece of material already made I adapt it by adding or removing certain elements. Sometimes I remove the colour in order to create something to my own taste. Even in the case of period dramas, we have to remember that the audiences are made up of our contemporaries. While we try to preserve certain historical elements of plays set more than a hundred years ago, I add modern colours to the mix. Moreover, for large-scale productions a major issue is getting hold of the basic material. For instance, to make costumes for an opera with a chorus of 160 people and 100 extras, how does one secure 10,000 metres of material? In such cases, I leave the costume for the leading actors until later.


With films, in most cases, while shooting is under way I make the costumes for the subsequent scenes. Ran is the film in which I had the most time at hand to prepare. The filming was interrupted because of financial difficulties, but because I had already ordered the material for the costumes in Kyoto it was out of the question to cancel it at that stage. So the director Akira Kurosawa and I decided that, if there was no other way to keep the production going, we would pay for the material ourselves. Eventually, however, funding was secured and the film was completed. And I managed to keep my house! For Ran, all the costumes had been made by the time shooting started. On the other hand, for Kurosawa's film Dreams I was under more pressure as the timing was very tight.

You have designed many wonderful costumes. When you are thinking about and making them, what points are particularly important? Where do you derive your inspiration?


Well, I look for inspiration in my memories and experience. As I grew up in Kyoto, the wood of the Buddhist statues, trees, the grain of the wooden pillars, the patterns on the floor, the stones in the gardens, the bamboo, trees and plants in Kyoto are all a part of me, and as I read a script I borrow from all these things. As I have had a long life, I have accumulated various memories and experiences, and in the quest for inspiration my mind may jump from the Sanjusangendo temple in Kyoto to a wisteria flower I have seen in Rome. Since I travel all over the world in the course of my work, I absorb and keep hold of memories from everywhere I have been. Of course, I buy and study books and whatever else catches my attention in the various places I visit. The things that appeal to me at such times, the shapes and colours, become part of what inspires me. Take the costume for the character Tsue in Ran, for instance. The colour came from one of the works of the Italian painter Botticelli, and I incorporated it into a Japanese kimono. In House of Flying Daggers, the idea for the hat in the bamboo forest scene just popped into my head! I made it in the irregular weaving Kyoto style, but in China and Ukraine, where the filming took place, they don't have that special style, so I had a sample made by a bamboo artist in Kyoto and then had the hats made in China.


My work takes me all over the world, but the basis of my designs is Japanese, particularly the style of my native Kyoto.


At the end of this month you are taking part in the Edinburgh International Festival with the Chinese National Ballet. What sort of involvement have you had with the UK so far?


I have been nominated by the British Academy twice. The first time was for Ran in 1986, and the second was for House of Flying Daggers in 2004. Then there were three films by the British director Peter Greenaway, Prospero's Books, The Pillow Book and 8 1/2 Women, as well as two operas by him, Christopher Columbus and Writing to Vermeer. And currently I am looking at another script. Peter lives in Holland now, but when he was in London I visited him several times. Meanwhile, as I love Shakespeare, Ive been to Stratford-upon-Avon. As for other things, particularly for the stage, there are many items which simply have to be British-made. For instance, in the case of seamless linoleum for the stage floor, the British product is absolutely the best. Other things include long curtains and the nets for wig foundations. When I was working for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, people used to say "The materials Emi has ordered are British, so they're expensive!" I also use items from Germany but, when all is said and done, British goods are the best.

The Peony Pavillion, National Ballet of China


What things are you working on now?

I'm trying to replicate the costume for a wooden statue made by the Ukrainian sculptor Johan Pinzel 250 years ago. It is for an NHK programme. The silhouette of the statue bearing the costume is fascinating, and Pinzel is currently all the rage among artists the world over. Next year there is supposed to be an exhibition of his work at the Louvre, so I am planning to make a flying visit to Paris to see it.


Is such feverish globe-trotting a normal part of your life?


Just looking at the video of the Pinzel statue, and other things as well, I find there is so much I cannot quite grasp that I always try to go to the place in question if I can. And in this connection, although nothing has been decided yet, I have received a request to design some new costumes for a British ballet company.