Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese comic book from the late ’80s that was made into an incredibly popular animated film in 1995. Courtesy of Paramount and DreamWorks, the seminal anime classic is being made into a live-action feature staring Scarlet Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi. As you might be able to tell from the character’s name, Kusanagi is Japanese. And as you might be able to tell from the production still to the left, Johansson is not.
This has prompted numerous internet discussions (of varying levels of nuance and politeness) of “whitewashing,” the trend of casting white actors in non-white rolls. According to a report in Screen Crush last week, Paramount and DreamWorks had commissioned visual effects tests to determine if Johansson’s appearance could be digitally altered to look Asian.
I have some thoughts about this.
Johansson is an excellent actor and a box office star. As such, she’s very expensive. In fact, she’s among the highest paid actors around, earning $35 million in 2015 and reportedly commanding $17.5 million for her role in Ghost in the Shell.
I can’t find any specific information on the film’s budget but being familiar with the original work (a very high-concept, future sci-fi tale with robots and stuff) and the fact that this film is being positioned as a major Hollywood action vehicle staring one of the most popular stars working, I presume the picture’s a pretty pricey production. That’s why I find it odd that Paramount and Dreamworks would consider dumping even more money into digitally altering the lead actor to appear Asian. Testing the technology to see if it works costs money and if it does, the effect has to be applied to every frame of film featuring Johansson’s mug. That’s probably super duper expensive.
Is Johansson really that big of a draw? Is her presence in the film enough to offset the cost of a feature length digital effect and the combined public relations nightmare of responding to criticisms of whitewashing and what I’ve already seen described as a digital form of Asian blackface?
What say you, Paramount?
“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.”
Oh, good gravy, Paramount. Really?
It sounds like you thought you were being criticized – not for testing effects to make non-Asian actors you’ve cast for Asian roles appear Asian – but for testing these effects specifically on Johansson and rushed to assure us that such digital alterations, if they ever saw the light of day, would only have been applied to background characters. But that strikes me as even sillier. You were honestly considering going to the trouble and expense of digitally altering your background characters to appear Asian instead of simply hiring Asian actors to fill the backgrounds of your shots? Seriously?
Regardless, my question remains: why spend money to digitally make your actors look Asian when you can simply hire Asian actors? Sounds a lot cheaper and easier to me. Even assuming the effects tests were successful, are Asian-looking, non-Asian actors somehow more cost effective than Asian-looking, Asian actors?