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How Shakina Nayfack used her voice to reclaim trans representation in animation

Shakina Nayfack, actress and transgender activist, poses for a portrait ahead of the release of the new U.S. dub of a cult favorite Japanese anime, “Tokyo Godfathers,” in which she has a starring voice role.
Shakina Nayfack, actress and transgender activist, poses for a portrait ahead of the release of the new U.S. dub of a cult favorite Japanese anime, “Tokyo Godfathers,” in which she has a starring voice role.
(Michael Nagle/For The Times)

As an actress, Shakina Nayfack is interested in storytelling that moves audiences. As a trans rights activist, she’s focused on achieving true freedom. As an actress who’s trans, her life and career goals are about searching for truth.

Just one look at her filmography and theater work confirms this, from her one-woman play “Manifest Pussy,” which chronicles her pilgrimage to Thailand for gender confirmation, to roles in Hulu’s “Difficult People” and Amazon’s “Transparent: Musicale Finale.”

“I’m most concerned with liberation and the liberation revolution,” she said on a recent call from New York City. “Those are my favorite things in the world, so I’d like to think that you can sense some of that in everything that I’m doing.”

Her latest role, as the voice of a trans character in a new English-dubbed re-release of the Japanese anime film “Tokyo Godfathers” — which screens nationwide tonight and Wednesday through Fathom Events, and opens in select theaters Friday — continues such a theme.

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About a trio of chosen family navigating homelessness on the streets of Tokyo, the acclaimed holiday-set anime from the late master director Satoshi Kon (“Perfect Blue,” “Paprika”) follows a middle-aged alcoholic named Gin, a teenage runaway named Miyuki and a trans woman named Hana. While scrounging for food in the trash on Christmas Eve, they stumble upon an abandoned newborn, setting them on an effort to return the child to its parents.

Gin (voiced by Jon Avner), from left, Miyuki (Victoria Grace) and Hana (Shakina Nayfack) in the 2003 animated movie “Tokyo Godfathers.”
Gin (voiced by Jon Avner), from left, Miyuki (Victoria Grace) and Hana (Shakina Nayfack) in the 2003 animated movie “Tokyo Godfathers.”
(GKIDS)

Gin and Miyuki are voiced in the contemporary version of the film by Jon Avner and Victoria Grace, respectively, while the supporting cast includes Kate Bornstein and Crispin Freeman. Nayfack is the voice of Hana, a casting decision that updates the picture in a progressive way.

When “Tokyo Godfathers” originally premiered in 2003, it was voiced in Japanese by Toru Emori, Aya Okamoto and Yoshiaki Umegaki and had English subtitles. Then, perhaps as a result of lesser knowledge about and understanding of trans people, the character of Hana was referred to as a former drag queen in press write-ups and promotional materials. The character was also voiced by a man (Umegaki). In this version, which is being released by international animation specialists GKIDS, Hana is a trans woman and, in a move to authentically cast the part, she’s voiced by a trans woman.

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“We always thought that [Hana] was one of the most interesting and remarkable things about an already pretty incredible film,” said Dave Jesteadt, president of GKIDS. As such, he said he knew he wanted to “honor the movie’s pioneering work in its narrative” by having a trans woman play Hana, “not to put our finger on the tale in any way or trying to ‘modernize the film,’ but I think we wanted to help audiences in the present day experience or feel what we think Satoshi Kon was really trying to do.”

And though the specialization of voice acting often allows actors to play characters across races, genders and generations — as seen in shows like “The Simpsons,” “Bob’s Burgers” and “Family Guy” — GKIDS has “always looked to [use] our dubs to investigate ways that we can bring a more naturalistic tone to the filmmaking in line with the progress we’re seeing in live action filmmaking,” Jesteadt added.

After working out a deal with Sony, which owned the original rights to the film, to assist with remastering and re-releasing the title, GKIDS set out to find its cast. Nayfack came to audition for the role by happenstance. About a year into the search, a mutual friend of hers and the director of the English-language cast, Michael Sinterniklaas, threw her name into the hat. After a number of recorded auditions, she was cast, having watched the original and fallen in love with its story and the character of Hana.

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Actress and activist Shakina Nayfack also had a series regular role in the Hulu comedy “Difficult People.”
(Michael Nagle/For The Times)

“It was one of those fairy-tale things,” she remembered, “going from nothing to [landing] the role in a matter of days.”

Having never voice-acted in this manner before, she said the experience was “incredible,” even though she was “way out of [her] comfort zone.”

“But I think the freedom comes from living up to the largesse of this animated character, who has so much heart and charisma and passion,” she said. “I really got to kind of explode behind the microphone in a way that you don’t often get to do with on-camera acting.”

When you look at them side by side, it’s like, ‘Here comes Shakina to remedy a wrong of the past.’
Shakina Nayfack on her characters in “Transparent” and “Tokyo Godfathers”
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As for what it means that a trans actress was sought out for the role, Nayfack said it helps establish a precedent and is “a huge move for trans visibility within anime and in animation in general.”

“And though I’ve been hearing from mostly the Twittersphere about other trans characters and storylines in anime and more broadly in animation,” she added, “I don’t think there’s anyone quite as iconic as Hana.”

Quite ironically, Nayfack taking on the role mirrors that of her “Transparent” gig last year, which also had her step into a trans character originated by a cis actor. As Ava, she was enlisted by Judith Light’s Shelley to play the deceased Maura (originally played by Jeffrey Tambor before he was removed from the show amid allegations of sexual impropriety) in a play staged to help Shelley process her grief.

shakina_transparent.jpg
Shakina Nayfack in the “Transparent: Musicale Finale” series finale.
(Jessica Brooks/Amazon)

“When you look at them side by side, it’s like, ‘Here comes Shakina to remedy a wrong of the past’ in terms of these trans characters being played or voiced by cis men,” she said in reflection. “It’s amazing to get to restore a different type of authenticity to both of those characters, to Maura and to Hana. I think that’s just kind of cool that that’s what my artistic journey has been over the last year — repairing those roles.”

But that there is even a need to restore and repair moments of trans representation points to how much further the industry has to go in achieving meaningful inclusion.

“I think the next stage is going to be just existing — where a character’s trans-ness doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the plot or their journey,” she said. “Just like trans people exist in the world, trans people should exist in movies, animation and theater. We should just be seeing ourselves included like everybody else.”

'Tokyo Godfathers'
In Japanese with English subtitles, and dubbed English versions

Rated: PG-13, for thematic elements, violent images, language and some sexual material

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Playing: 7 p.m. March 9 (subtitled), 11 (dubbed), in general release via Fathom Events; starts March 13, Lumiere Music Hall, Beverly Hills (subtitled)
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