A many-hued Oscar
(China Daily)
Updated: 2009-10-21 10:26

The world knows Emi Wada for her Academy Award-winning costumes for Akira Kurosawa's Ran, but most Chinese know her as the brains behind the techni-colored wardrobe of Zhang Yimou's 2002 Hero (Yingxiong).

"What I care the most about a project is whether I can try something new in it," she says, handing over her orange-colored name card. Even more eye-catching is the right sleeve of her black jacket, which features designs resembling sparks and matches the shimmer of her eye shadow.

"I dyed it myself when testing new colors for a film," the 72-year-old says, smiling.

Thanks to her sensitivity to colors, she is the first Asian woman to design costumes for internationally acclaimed directors, including Nagisa Oshima, Peter Greenaway and Julie Taymor.

She hand-dyed more than 50 hues of red and 14 shades of gray for Hero, and in the process became friends with many in Beijing's dye-production industry.

If she couldn't find what she wanted in Beijing, she would get it from England and Japan.

She also made a small flower for Zhang Ziyi's robe. Before the shooting began, she told cinematographer Christopher Doyle, "Please, shoot the flower clearly."

She even persuaded Zhang Yimou to change the colors of the falling leaves in the fight scene involving Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi. The leaves were golden, but Wada suggested that Zhang make them gradually turn red to match the actresses' red gowns.

Her collaboration with Zhang Yimou continued in House of Flying Daggers (Shimian Maifu) and The First Emperor, which was staged at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006.

Wada says working with Zhang Yimou was memorable, because they have a lot in common in their approach to the use of color.

She also feels an affinity for Akira Kurosawa because of his meticulousness.

"Kurosawa was a perfectionist," she says.

"Zhang Yimou can shoot a winter scene in summer, but Kurosawa would never compromise until he got what he wanted."

Wada recalls how the crew waited for a week for the cloud that Kurosawa wanted when making Ran, a film set in ancient Japan and loosely adapted from King Lear.

Every day at 4 am, all 400 extras would arrive on the sets to wait for the right cloud to appear. If it didn't, they would leave but still make $20.

"It is impossible to make a film the way Kurosawa did, nowadays," says Wada.

At one point, the project had to be suspended because of financing problems, but Wada had already ordered cloth worth about $200,000 from four factories of Kyoto.

Kurosawa halted the work of all the other departments, but asked her to press on.

Wada visited the factories and spoke with the owners, promising to pay in a year, with her own money if she had to.

She cried when a Japanese company stepped in with the money, half a year later.

"It was 6 in the morning," she recalls. "Kurosawa called and told me we had the money. My tears just streamed out."

The nearly 1,000 costumes she made for the film earned Wada an Oscar. The wardrobe blended elements from the 600-year-old Japanese musical drama Noh and Western inspirations, including Nazi uniforms and European women's Renaissance-era attire.

"It is really demanding to create costumes that are both faithful to history and innovative," she says. "But for me, trying something new in every project is a must."

Although she's obsessed with innovation, she says the bottom line is that a film about Japanese culture should be acceptable to the Japanese people.

She turned down Steven Spielberg's invitation to work on Memoirs of a Geisha, because most Japanese believe the film depicts "a Japan of the Americans' imagination".

"Almost everything in the film is unacceptable - the environment, the people, the costumes and interpretation of Japanese culture," she says.

"If I had participated, I would have felt ashamed to return to my hometown."

Wada grew up in Kyoto, where top geishas have lived for 300 years.

Although the film won an Academy Award for best costume design in 2006, Wada didn't vote for it as a juror.

The senior designer does not restrict herself to famous directors. Forty years of experience in creating wardrobes for films, dramas and operas have given her the confidence to work with only those she wants.

She recently finished work on the art house production The Warrior and the Wolf (Lang Zai Ji), which premiered in China on Oct 2. It was her second time to team up with director Tian Zhuangzhuang.

She had earlier worked on a biopic of the Chinese Go master Wu Qingyuan, who spent most part of his life in Japan. The film brought her the lowest income, but she did it because she gets along well with Tian and believes the Chinese director truly understands Japanese culture.

Her latest project is a kungfu flick by Taiwan director Su Chao-bin. She decided to jump onboard with the newcomer because she liked one of his earlier films.

Wada says she has no plans to create a fashion brand. She designs her own dresses and sometimes amends the clothes she buys.

"I don't like building castles in the air," she says.

"I like to be inspired by good stories."