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THE LAST SAMURAI

Costumes
In addition to sets, authentic costumes helped establish the on-screen world of Meiji Japan and this responsibility fell to costume designer Ngila Dickson.

Simultaneously leading crews in Japan, Los Angeles and her native New Zealand, Dickson supervised the creation of hundreds of costumes made exclusively for the film, based on historic photos and documents as well as interviews with scholars of the period. Her research uncovered essential details from the method of handcrafting Samurai battle armor to the cultural significance of the color, fabric quality, print-size and sleeve length of a kimono.

Dickson, whose designs earned a BAFTA Award and a Saturn Award for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and an Oscar nomination for Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, managed the herculean task like a general overseeing an army, a strategy she originated while working on the Rings films. "I put one coordinator in charge of each area – the village scenes, the Samurai armor, the Imperial Army, and so on," she explains. "That meant I could compartmentalize and know that each of those team leaders would follow their specialty."

Dickson approached the epic Samurai drama with a dedication to accuracy but soon discovered that much of her historical references were subjective.

"The first thing we did was find every possible photographic reference for the period and amassed an enormous volume of images," she says. "As we went further into it, we realized that many of those images were staged and that the photographers had taken quite a bit of license. We discovered that in some cases they were using the local prostitutes and dressing them up. So, from what we initially thought was a huge historical reference, we had to go through and re-evaluate. Ultimately, we interviewed expert historians both in America and Japan and then cross-referenced their material. Finally we looked again at the photographs and began to unravel the truth."

Once Dickson felt comfortable with the body of images she began to make the wardrobe. Because costume houses don't stock immense supplies of Meiji period kimonos or Samurai armor, her team bought the raw materials and created what they needed. "Once we established the elements for the kimonos we started making our own," she explains. "We had people making screen prints so we'd get the stripes right and over-dyeing fabric to reproduce the color of the period. We started with a basic look and then built on top of it. For me, that's a good way of achieving a good period quality for the costumes.

"I'm a demon when it comes to proper color," the designer admits. "Most people think of Japanese dress as quite colorful whereas I've used rich, dark, subdued colors, which are correct to the Meiji period. I use brights very sporadically, for specific elements, such as Geisha. As with every movie, we try to distinguish one character from another with wardrobe selections. Ken Watanabe's character, the Samurai leader Katsumoto, is about purity and strength, and embodies a Zen-like quality, so he appears mostly in deep blues and earth tones.

"Likewise, Taka is initially associated with very dark tones," Dickson continues. "Taka is a subtle, complex character, a woman whose husband has been killed in battle by the man she is currently nursing back to health. We began with a very rich, dark palette for her, in costumes as plain as possible. As the story progresses, Taka's colors lighten as she begins to blossom and change with Captain Algren's influence. Of course, the clothes of that time were very restrictive so her wardrobe can never be very vivid; the progression is subtle."

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