When Scarlett Johansson was cast in the lead role for Ghost In The Shell, many folks got riled up over another white actor being cast in a role that originated as another ethnicity. Her character, Motoko Kusanagi, is Japanese in the original anime. And while they’ve reportedly changed the name of the character to just “Major” for the film, plenty are using it as another example of “whitewashing” in Hollywood. And it is, no doubt, but it’s also a multi-million dollar production that most studios won’t take a risk with unless a name like Scarlett Johansson is attached. We’ve seen it with Exodus: Gods And Kings, Pan, Aloha, and most recently with Gods of Egypt. It’s not a surprise, despite it being outrageous.
Now the real shock here is that testing was apparently done on the film in order to make the characters in the film look Asian using CGI. According to ScreenCrush, producers at Dreamworks and Paramount attempted to curtail controversy surrounding their casting by testing effects that would change the nationality of actors on screen. The studios responded to the report, confirming the experiment, but denying it was used on Johansson’s character:
A test was done related to a specific scene for a background actor which was ultimately discarded. Absolutely no visual effects tests were conducted on Scarlett’s character and we have no future plans to do so.
ScreenCrush adjusted their original article following the statement, but noted that they stand by their initial report:
An earlier headline specifically mentioned actress Scarlett Johansson. Despite Paramount’s denial, we stand by the assertion that visual effects tests were performed on Ms. Johansson’s character and likeness.
The news caused many to respond from within the industry, including actresses Ming-Na Wen from Agents of SHIELD and Constance Wu from Fresh Off The Boat.
It’s a wayward attempt at appeasing the audience, but doing so in a tone deaf way. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this type of thing on screen. Cloud Atlas attempted something similar with the segment of the film dealing with a futuristic Korea, but made the decision due to the artistic direction of the film. For Ghost In The Shell, many see this type of decision as a way to place a Band-Aid on a larger issue.
Max Landis actually posted a video response and Twitter rant — hence all the caps being tossed around — to the situation, making a few obvious points and calling for people to be upset at the proper culprit in Hollywood. He actually does a fine job of defining the issue, even if most folks decided to take it as a defense of Johansson in the role.
Having Scarlett Johansson in the role is not a bad idea. Having her play someone who is intended to be Asian is a bad idea. Using effects to make that happen is outright stupidity. All of it makes sense, though, when you look at it through the eyes of some studio executive. It’s odd, but there’s a real discussion to be had in terms of changing this.