Shakina Nayfack on Giving a Trans Anime Hero the Voice She Deserves

With the new U.S. dub of the cult classic "Tokyo Godfathers," a beloved—but misunderstood—character finally gets her due.

In an era that’s all about showcasing authentic voices, the latest edition of the heartwarming Japanese anime Tokyo Godfathers is taking the sentiment literally. Film distributor GKIDS has rereleased director Satoshi Kon’s 2003 Christmas-set dramedy with new subtitles and English dubbing, and this time around trans actor Shakina Nayfack has been cast as Hana, a homeless transgender woman who, along with her destitute found family—teen runaway Miyuki (Victoria Grace) and alcoholic Gin (Jon Avner)—discovers an abandoned baby in the trash. What follows is an emotional, surprise-filled journey with a whole lot of extra.
 

A seasoned singer, actress, and activist, Nayfack previously appeared in the Transparent musical finale as the pot-dealing Ava and in Hulu’s Difficult People as “trans truther” Lola. Although the original version of Tokyo Godfathers and its reviews often misgendered Hana, or referred to her as a transvestite or drag queen, Nayfack and GKIDS have firmly established her as a trans female, while still reflecting the gritty, not always woke world she inhabits.

Nayfack spoke with NewNowNext about the film, trans representation in anime, and the sad fate of Transparent.

Were you familiar with Tokyo Godfathers before you were brought on to voice Hana?

I didn’t know the movie, but as soon as I heard about the gig I watched it and was totally blown away by how special it is, especially the character of Hana. It’s a cult classic with a huge following, and I hope this rerelease and new English dub expose a lot more people to the movie.

There was some misgendering and transphobia associated with the 2003 version. What are your feelings about the original take on the character?

I don’t know what the cultural politics around trans identity were in Japan around the turn of the century when this movie was made, but there’s a big difference in 2003 trans awareness versus 2020. I recognize Hana as a trans woman like a trans woman recognizes another trans woman, so I instantly saw a character I could connect with. She lives her life as a woman and knows in her heart that God made her a woman, but even when my casting was announced some die-hard fans of the movie were saying, “Hana’s not trans—she’s a drag queen.” My first thought was, Those categories aren’t mutually exclusive, and secondly, the fact that she lives her life as a woman tells you very much who she intends to be in the world.

GKIDS
(L-R): Gin, Mikuki, and Hana in Tokyo Godfathers.

Was there any rewriting of the script?

Yeah. They’d already created a new script for the dub and the subtitled versions so that there would be different language for how folks talk about Hana. And when I was in the studio recording the new English dub, we would stop and look at a moment and discuss whether something was the right terminology.

Do you have a specific example of this?

The young girl, Miyuki, refers to Hana in a dismissive way that’s meant to be hurtful, but we wanted to use words that weren’t as loaded as some other [transphobic] epithets out there. We have to show what Hana’s up against without glamorizing transphobia, so it was a lot of back-and-forth about what that would be. At one point she called Hana an “old grandpa,” and we changed it to “grandma.” Things like that.

Did this movie have a following in the trans community since Hana is ultimately a heroic figure?

Absolutely! She’s a trans hero, 100%. Preparing for the project I did some online research on trans inclusion in anime, and animation more broadly, and a few people are making headway. I think folks still think of animation as pretty transphobic because there are a lot of jokes made at our expense. I know Steven Universe has cracked that open a lot, and Shadi Petosky’s Danger & Eggs really pushed the needle forward for us, but overall it’s felt like a realm we’re not necessarily welcome in. That’s why I was so excited about Hana—because I felt like, Oh my God, there’s been this iconic trans role in anime for 17 years and I never knew about her? That’s crazy! And for the most part the fans’ response has been incredibly enthusiastic—and not just trans fans. Allies have come forward saying they’re so proud of GKIDS for bringing in a trans actor to read this role for the new version. So I think people are waking up to the importance of trans representation across the board, even in animation.

Shakina Nayfack
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images
Shakina Nayfack.

Are you as good with babies as Hana is?

Absolutely not. I’m terrified of them, but I love Hana’s maternal instinct. I have a maternal instinct, but it’s spread broadly among a bunch of ragtag artists I’ve helped mother in a creative way.

You were in Difficult People with Billy Eichner. Do people expect him to be abrasive all the time?

That’s so funny. The show is called Difficult People, so Julie [Klausner] and Billy got a free pass to create the most terrible characters they could. But honestly, they’re just professionals. There’s an expectation, because of Billy on the Street too, and people have a hard time separating the artist from the character. But I think he’s an insanely smart and funny comedian who created a brand out of his enchantment with pop culture.

Now that some time has passed, how do you feel about the way Transparent went down? On the plus side, you did get to sing a number in the finale.

Yeah, with Judith Light no less. It’s bittersweet because that show could have run for several more seasons if circumstances didn’t bring it to its knees. I’m really proud of what we made with the finale, and I’m even prouder that I got to fill the shoes of Maura Pfefferman and bring her to life—if only for a couple of minutes—as a trans woman. That felt like a revolutionary, restorative act. But it’s sad that we don’t get to have more adventures with the Pfeffermans, because the rest of that family was such a wonderful cast of characters and I really loved working with them.

Was there anything Jeffrey Tambor could have done to right the wrong?

That’s not for me to say, but I think an apology is always a good start. I don’t know if, in spite of an investigation, there’s ever been an admission of wrongdoing or an apology. So many people lost out on career opportunities because of that, and the emotional and economic cost of it is sweeping. There was specific injury done to a few people who I think deserve that apology, but there was also the rupture of the whole show, which I think was unfortunate and irreversible.

Shakina Nayfack
Amy Sussman/Getty Images

You also appeared in an episode of Netflix’s Marvel series, Jessica Jones. Would you like to rejoin the Marvel universe in some way?

Oh, that’s always been the dream. My character has a name, Frankie, so I exist in the Marvel universe. I’m in the Wiki, so I invite Team Marvel to find a place for me and I’ll be there with bells on!

What else is in the works?

I wrote a great big American play premiering this July at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. The title is Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club, and it’s about the community of women I met and healed with when I went to Thailand for gender confirmation surgery. It’s autobiographical, and I’m playing myself, and it’s really about one trans woman’s resistance to embracing the sisterhood. Kate Bornstein and Annie Golden are also in it, and they’re legends to me. Kate voices Hana’s mother in Tokyo Godfathers, too, so it’s amazing that we got to work on two projects together.

Any chance we’ll see you in The Matrix 4, which is shooting now? Are you lobbying the Wachowski sisters?

I just want to be friends with the Wachowskis and then they can put me in anything. I love their work and storytelling, so let’s put a hashtag on it and get me in!

Tokyo Godfathers opens in select theaters March 13.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.
@LawrenceFerber