When Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks revealed the first official image of Scarlett Johansson as "The Major" in the live-action anime adaption Ghost In The Shell, the response probably wasn't what they were looking for. Instead of Ghost devotees being excited at the prospect of seeing a classic anime feature coming to life, the prevailing story of the day was outrage from the media, fans and even others in the film industry, in response to the casting a of white actress to play a Japanese character - touching off the latest round of debate over race and casting in an evolving media landscape.
Now, a new rumor has surfaced which, if true, is all but certain to make an already difficult situation even more volatile: it's being reported that the studios had conducted digital-effects tests to make Ghost in the Shell's white actors appear Asian in post-production.
The Screen Crush report, attributed to unnamed sources close to the production, claims that digital-effects specialists Lola VFX (best known for the startling digital touch-up effects used to gradually age Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) were brought in to see if it were possible to use those same techniques to change the ethnic-appearance of actors in post-production beyond the limits of what physical makeup can accomplish. Commonly known as "beauty work" in the FX community, such digital touch-ups are seen as the next frontier in post-production work, and is believed to be in much wider use than is often reported - i.e. touch-ups used to make specific actors appear taller, thinner, have smoother skin or different body-shapes might not necessarily be as openly disclosed as other FX work is.
In a statement, Paramount denied that the idea went beyond the testing phase, and was being targeted for use on background characters - not Johansson:
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.
Nevertheless, the rumor's source maintains that Johansson was, in fact, the ultimate focus of the tests, but that they were conducted by the studio without her knowledge or input. The news comes as the production is already under heavy fire for the casting decision, which saw Johansson's fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe costar, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Ming-Na Wen, raising eyebrows (and earning applause) on Twitter by openly criticizing the project:
Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I'm a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role. https://t.co/VS6r6iish9
— Ming-Na Wen (@MingNa) April 14, 2016
Comic book scribe Jon Tsuei, creator of RunLoveKill, also made social media waves with in-depth condemnations of the film, explaining that Ghost In The Shell's specific science-fiction themes of consumer-technological advancement make it uniquely bound to its Japanese cultural origins; and thus an even poorer candidate than many other anime series for "Westernization":
Ghost In The Shell plays off all of these themes. It is inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.
— Jon Tsuei (@jontsuei) April 15, 2016
In modern Hollywood, changing the race of characters in casting is not uncommon, particularly in instances where studios seek to add diversity to overwhelmingly monoracial properties as in the rumored case of Tessa Thompson playing Valkyrie in the next Thor movie. But actually casting actors (particularly white actors) to play entirely different races happens much less frequently than it did in earlier decades, where "yellowface" and "blackface" acting was acceptable enough for some actors to build entire careers around it. The technique is rarely employed on major productions today outside of deliberately comedic scenarios or where there's a larger "point" intended. (See: Cloud Atlas, where recognizable actors being visible under extreme race, gender and age-changing makeups in multiple roles was used to communicate a story theme of reincarnation.)
Instead, controversy over race and casting had largely shifted to "whitewashing," instances where previously non-white characters were reinvented so that (supposedly) more "marketable" white movie stars could be placed in the roles. Previously, Johansson's casting in Ghost In The Shell was being criticized on these merits; but the idea that the studio may have intended to digitally transform her into a Japanese-looking woman is sure to only draw more animosity to the issue - particularly from actors of marginalized backgrounds themselves, who already have too few major roles to pick from without worrying that CGI trickery will be used to sideline them even further. Indeed, this newest outcry comes amid an already contentious discussion on Tilda Swinton portraying The Ancient One, traditionally depicted as an elderly Asian man, in Doctor Strange - ironically, a casting decision some have maintained was made to avoid accusations of indulging in ethnic stereotypes of "Wise Asian Mystics."
The ongoing debate shines a light on one of the uglier issues of Hollywood economics, with studios routinely accused to adhering to casting standards that keep woman and people of color from major roles based on belief that white actors are bigger box-office draws. While the industry has in recent years begun a concerted domestic readjustment as non-white audiences in the United States increasingly make up greater and greater shares of box-office receipts, many Hollywood analysts continue to contend that global audiences in regions less ethnically diverse than the U.S. still prefer (based on ticket sales) recognizable white stars; while others have floated the theory that, even in some non-majority-white countries, white American actors are still seen as a marketable "sign" of expensive Hollywood production values due to the industry's historic reliance on the same. Others have cast doubt on both of these claims, however, holding that they are based on old data and outdated assumptions.
Johansson is not the only white actor in Ghost In The Shell, with Pilou Asbæk and Juliet Binoche also in the main cast. However, the film is still believed to be set in a Japan-centric future world and feature mainly Japanese actors in supporting/background roles. Whatever happens with the finished film, the controversy isn't likely to go away.
Ghost in the Shell opens in U.S. theaters on March 31st, 2017.