Wada Emi, Oscar-Winning Costume Designer, Dead at 84

Wada Emi, the celebrated Japanese costume designer who won an Oscar for Kurosawa Akira’s “Ran” in 1985, has died.

Wada’s family told Japanese media that she died on Nov. 13, 2021, but did not disclose the cause or the place of her death.

Appreciated for her painstaking attention to detail – she hand-dyed the costumes for “Ran” – and for playing hard to get, Wada won numerous awards in addition to the Oscar and BAFTA. Other prizes included a Prime Time Emmy for her costumes in British TV show “Oedipus Rex” in 1993 and a Hong Kong Film Award for her designs on Zhang Yimou’s spectacular martial arts fantasy “Hero.”

Born Noguchi Emiko in 1937 to a wealthy family, Wada was surrounded from an early age by concert-level pianists, European artistic influence and Japanese literature.

At middle school she discovered that she liked the films of Jean Cocteau, but wanted to be a painter. Marriage to Wada Ben, a young TV director working for state broadcaster NHK, diverted her artistic inclinations towards performing art, contemporary dance and pantomime. Her first film work was on TV commercials.

She initially turned down most film work as producers were unwilling to meet her demand of designing the entire wardrobe. American production “Marco,” about Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in 1971 was the first to agree. Kurosawa’s “Ran,” more than a decade later, was only the second to concur.

Kurosawa had never previously used a costume designer, but set out to persuade Wada, who he had met before. He may have been impressed by Wada’s stated ambition of designing costumes for all the works of William Shakespeare, and by her knowledge of Shakespeare texts in multiple languages including Japanese, German and English.

Production of “Ran” was interrupted for six months by a currency crisis that affected its French producer. Wada was so committed to it by that stage, and who had spent a vast sum on costumes, said that she would sell her house to pay for the film. That was not necessary, and the completed film earned four Oscar nominations.

Wada said that her intention was not to design costumes for characters, but instead to design them for specific parts of the story. And while she accepted the description of ‘stylized excess’ that was once applied to her, she was also at pains to leave the wearer unburdened by her creation, giving the performer room to act.

Color was, however, a Wada obsession. She would sketch costume designs, make miniatures and create fabric samples in order to get to understand the director’s taste. That may have been a factor that allowed her to work on no less than five films – including “The Pillow Book” and “8 1/2 Women” – by the famously high-minded British director Peter Greenaway. They mostly communicated by fax, she said.

Wada’s insistence on original work, and fine craft details, even for stage plays and operas, meant that she was expensive and far from prolific in a career of more than 50 years. Though it also meant her early works stood up to DVD and high-definition TV scrutiny.

And she remained professionally active until quite recently. She designed the costumes for Ann Hui’s Chinese literary adaptation “Love After Love,” which releases later this week in Hong Kong.

 

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