• Sarah Fonseca

Shakina Nayfack on Giving Voice to 'Tokyo Godfathers'’ Trans Heroine

Drafted March 2020

If the promise of spring hasn’t already thawed you out, the re-release of the Tokyo Godfathers is bound to melt your cold, windburned heart. The essential anime follows a homeless chosen family — Gin, a drunk gambler who lost it all; Hana, a transfeminine club performer; and Miyuku, a teen runaway — as they discover an abandoned newborn in a landfill during the throes of the holiday season. Created by the late Satoshi Kon, the 2003 film borrows moves from every genre from the gumshoe noir to the mafia thriller. The trio’s subsequent quest to find the infant’s ‘real’ parents is a pleasant collection of predictable shifts and total surprises, not to mention a sweet meditation on how to make a family when your own isn’t an option.

Hana — freshly voiced by Shakina Nayfack (Different People, Transparent) in the English dubbing — is Tokyo Godfathers’ perpetual scene stealer. She is the self-made lovechild of Cabaret’s Sally Bowles and Grey Gardens’ Little Edie: enterprising, doting, theatrical, and never apologizing for any of it. Hana, her name translating to ‘Blossom’ in Japanese, yells in the same pitch as Nathan Lane’s femme pansy in The Birdcage. It is a sharp-of-center cry, impressively high above the staff, daring ill-intentioned men and champagne flutes alike to enter her perimeter.

This all to say, I loved her at first sight.

Hana repeats her catchphrase — I’m just a queer who cares — freely throughout the ragtag gang’s epic journey to locate Kiyoko’s birth parents. Those are six words that can kill with kindness. Linking them together like bespoke chainmail, Hana confidently claims her nomadic place in the world while repelling the daggers of her adversaries. As if this isn’t enough of a feat, Hana also has discreet superpower up her tattered sleeve.

Prior to the March 13th re-release of Tokyo Godfathers, I had the pleasure of encountering another ‘queer who cares’: The activist, actress, and filmmaker, Shakina Nayfack. We chatted about her giving voice to the most unsung trans character in the history of animation — and where the movie fits in the queer cinema pantheon.

Sarah: One of my favorite parts of queer cinema is interpretation in hindsight. A viewer might heavily identify with a character, but not realize until years later that this connection was due to their shared gender and/or desire, and how those qualities motivate the struggles of both the spectator and the character. When first presented with the script for Tokyo Godfathers, did you connect with Hana when you encountered her on the page?

Shakina: Oh, absolutely. I was in love from her from the first moment. She was a character after my own heart.

Did your relationship with her change over time?

My recording lined up in such a fascinating way. I found out about receiving the role days before confirmation surgery, so it was a race to record prior to being out of commission. In spending time with her, I realized that she represents so many qualities that I want to bring into the world.

At the time of Tokyo Godfathers’ release in 2003, a number of film writers — straight and queer ones alike — overwhelmingly labeled Hana a ‘drag queen’ when she was written as a trans woman; the paper of record’s chief critic mustered up ‘transvestite’ as a descriptor. Can you explain what was going on in LGBT culture then? Were trans women intentionally underground, ignored, or a combination of the two? Why was transfemininity so hard to label?

I came out as a trans woman at the turn of the century and… the world was such a different place back then! I don’t think people had much of a lens to see the truth of the character. Satoshi Kon’s estate really prioritized finding a trans woman to dub her in the English version. This allowed Hana to be interpreted as who she is; it was not a revisionist move.

Not without her own vices, Hana is the most principled of the three main characters: She is passionate about chosen family, she values the kindness of strangers, and she is exceptionally powerful. Do you have a favorite quality of hers?

Without a doubt, her faith! Trans people are so often pushed away from divine intervention, in part because of Evangelicalism. I am a trans woman of faith and don’t see much of that represented.

I really adore Gin and Hana’s unrespectable rapport despite — and maybe even a little because of — Gin’s slurred insults. Tokyo Godfathers doesn’t treat Hana with kid gloves. Satoshi Kon wrote her as being incredibly capable. Were there any concerns at the time of recording that queer audiences might not understand Gin’s motives or Hana’s cavalier love of her own body?

I find there to be a tenderness to their jiving and freedom in Hana’s self-deprecation. She loves herself and god loves her. I hope that viewers can see, from the first to the last, that she is thriving in her own way.

How would you like queer viewers and cinema history to remember Hana today?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I have icons. I have Ursula. I have Jessica Rabbit. And now, I have Hana.

GKIDS theatrically re-released Tokyo Godfathers on March 13th at Metrograph in New York City and Laemmle’s Lumiere Music Hall in Los Angeles; to learn about subsequent theatrical openings and online streaming, visit tokyogodfathersmovie.com