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Shakina Nayfack & Michael Sinterniklaas on Finding Hana for Tokyo Godfathers

by Cindy Sibilsky,

It was mid-January in the Green Room at Ohayocon's 20th-anniversary convention in Columbus, Ohio, and Michael Sinterniklaas—veteran voice actor, ADR director and scriptwriter for many anime, video games and cartoons—was in a state of panic. He's usually an easy-going, jovial guy so his tension provoked both my concern and curiosity. When queried, he explained that he was directing the first-ever English dub (produced by GKIDS and his own company, NYAV Post) of the iconic, critically-acclaimed 2003 anime feature by Satoshi Kon, Tokyo Godfathers. But he was still missing the voice of one of the three stars—the endearing and extraordinary character of Hana, a homeless trans woman with a heart of gold who is arguably the most significant role in the film. Casting Hana was not only complex in terms of vocal ability and emotional range, but there was respect for the LGBTQIA community to consider. Sinterniklaas was at a loss.

Suddenly, I had a vision that, if we were animated, would have appeared as a lightbulb over my head: “What about Shakina Nayfack? Do you know her? She'd be perfect for this part!” Sinterniklaas admitted he did not, but the PhD-toting, award-winning trans woman performer, writer, director, producer and activist, was already a big presence on stages and screens across America. She'd caught attention through her autobiographical rock musicals about her gender-confirmation surgery, the film Death Drive, and television series such as Hulu's Difficult People, Marvel's Jessica Jones, and the musical finale of Transparent. Nayfack acted as a guest star and writer/producer for Amazon's series.

Sufficiently intrigued, I linked them both that very night via text messages. Needless to say, soon after that she got the part and the rest is history. The film was screened at theaters on March 9 and 11, right before the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic made such social gatherings all but impossible. During these uncertain times, Shakina Nayfack and Michael Sinterniklaas shared some insights about their participation on the whirlwind journey of Tokyo Godfathers—a story about hope and humanity, perhaps even more relevant now than its original release date—in a candid interview for Anime News Network.

Anime News Network: Michael—how did you feel when you were tasked with directing the first-ever English dub of such an important and iconic film as Tokyo Godfathers?

Michael Sinterniklaas: Oh my Gosh! I've been really lucky, blessed, fortunate to have gotten to work on projects from basically all my heroes: Katsuhiro Otomo, Mamoru Oshii, Osamu Tezuka, Makoto Shinkai, Mamoru Hosoda, Masaki Yuasa, Hiroyuki Imaishi and almost a Studio Ghibli film (laughs), but I am such a devotee of Satoshi Kon. Seeing Perfect Blue in its initial theatrical release [in the U.S.] changed me. I had heard a rumor that it was initially going to be shot as a live-action movie but that their plans changed with the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan Having known that Perfect Blue could have been a live-action film changed my outlook on storytelling forever. Obviously, what Kon did with it was incredible, and frankly, I don't see how it would have been as powerful in a more “literal” live-action production. So, to answer your question, I was honored and it hit me as an important project to serve in the most authentic way we could.

ANN: Can you describe the challenges associated with casting the role of Hana, both in terms of vocal specificity and consciousness of LGBTQIA community concerns?

MS: First and foremost, Hana is a nurturer and not everyone has the spirit to truly take care of others. It's tough to determine if anyone can truly be an altruist, but Hana—despite her challenges and brief indulgence to play “mommy” with this “gift from God”—is an altruist who puts the needs of others (not just the baby) above her own comfort, safety and pride. To see anyone act in a truly selfless way is rare and important.

With regards to casting, that was actually a simple choice because there wasn't any other choice! It's not a secret that NYAV Post has taken a leadership position in what others have called “affirmative” or “diversity casting” though I would just call it “appropriate”. I mean, why wouldn't you want to cast the most authentic performer possible for any role? We have chosen entire casts appropriately ethnically, we cast a deaf performer for A Silent Voice, and we've cast age-appropriately for kids and seniors, so there was no question with regards to casting a trans woman for Hana.

GKIDS was totally on board and a great support during casting. We also looped in GLAAD to consult on both script and casting. One thing I have to mention is that I had known someone I thought would have been perfect. Her name was Maddie Blaustein and we worked together on Pokémon and many other projects. She was a friend, an amazing talent and a loving soul. But we lost her in 2008. I actually cast her in her first female role for Jungle Emperor Leo [the Kimba the White Lion feature film] as the Spirit of the Earth in the form of a mastodon, then as Sister Jill in a hilarious live-action dub of Cutie Honey—in which she was transcendent—as well as many other projects. So Maddie and her incredible body of work was my standard for casting Hana and a very, very, very high bar for any performer reading for the role.

Initially, we had some amazing women come to read for her, and in every case we had a very frank and open discussion about Hana's changes in the film, starting with a very rude misgendering from her homeless housemate and closest “family”. Every single performer that came in for one of our many in-person callbacks talked openly about how important it was to show Hana's struggle and therefore her strength. But there are also moments in which the original Japanese voice actor, Yoshiaki Umegaki, drops to a very deep tone which is not something most trans women have access to or want to access. This was one of the most poignant topics we discussed during callbacks. But since Maddie had such a rich baritone in her toolbox it was hard for me to give up hope that we could check all the boxes in the Japanese “blueprint” for the character. This process went on for a very long time and even risked our deadline because I just had this “feeling” that we hadn't quite found Hana yet and wouldn't compromise her for the sake of convenience. This, of course, was all going back and forth with our client GKIDS and the estate of Kon who also wanted to protect the integrity of this work.

ANN: Where was your mind when we first discussed this at Ohayocon in January?

MS: Honestly, when I ran into you and you asked “How are you?”, I knew I was at a crossroads. I could have just said, “Oh everything is great, crazy but great”, as I usually do because that is true. I work more than most people I know, and I get to work on so many amazing projects. But on that day, I was upset because our deadline was fast approaching, we still didn't have a Hana, and NYAV Post had never compromised on casting like this in the past. So I took a chance and told you the truth! That I was not great, up against it, and not having any luck finding Hana. And I am so glad I did!

ANN: What was it like when you finally discovered Shakina? How did you feel?

MS: When you first told me about Shakina it honestly sounded too good to be true! So I took it with a grain of salt. You have to understand how many other promising performers we'd gone though, but then I looked her up. The first thing I saw was her TED Talk [TEDxBroadway Talk “On Radical Forgiveness”] and not only was her generous soul on display but the message was something I personally needed to hear at that moment. So I guess you could say I initially felt apprehensive to believe this was the one after so many misses, but then forgiven as I heard her TED Talk and ultimately, very much like so many moments in Tokyo Godfathers, like it was ALL meant to be and that there was some divine plan to bring us together!

Shakina Nayfack, by photographer Nick Ishamel

ANN: Now Shakina—speaking of first impressions—Hana is equal parts crude, caring and complex. What were your initial thoughts about her when you read the script?

Shakina Nayfack: I loved her from the moment I met her. Miss Hana is all those things, unafraid to launch into the fullest expression of her emotions. I love that she's dramatic and I love that she's loving.

ANN: Could you relate to Hana? How are you similar and how are you different?

SN: Well, I'm not a Japanese trans woman experiencing homelessness in the early 2000s, but I can relate her to maternal instinct. I've been that den mother, fighting against all odds to her need to keep her chosen family together.

ANN: You are a woman of many notable firsts for trans artists' representation in entertainment (including, to my knowledge, the first trans character in a Marvel series). What was it like to voice a character who is also a trans woman?

SN: I actually wasn't the first in a Marvel series. The great MJ Rodriguez guest-starred on Luke Cage the season before my character showed up in Jessica Jones. But if you zoom out, it's not really about firsts; it's about the community of us coming up together and breaking down barriers. In terms of voicing Miss Hana, I was really nervous because I know she's beloved by fans around the world, and I wanted to honor the character and performance Yoshiaki Umegaki created in the original Japanese version. Still, I hope fans of the original will appreciate hearing a trans woman's take on the role, especially the softness I tried to bring to her strong voice.

ANN: Casting you as Hana has been called “precedent-setting”. What are your thoughts on LGBTQIA representation in the arts and entertainment industry? What has improved and what is still in need of work?

SN: This is such a huge question because even within the alphabet soup of queerness there are intersecting movements for representation that are also trying to establish precedents. We can't be satisfied just because a few of us broke through. Within the trans community alone we are vying for so many types of representation, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color], disabled trans folk, undocumented trans people, for example. Ultimately I'm a white trans woman voicing a Japanese trans character, so even though it's been an amazing opportunity and a step in the right direction, it's important to acknowledge the erasure that can happen when we allow whiteness to go unchecked in the advanced transness.

ANN: Has vocally embodying Hana make you look at people on the streets through a different lens?

SN: First of all, I want to say that I've never experienced homelessness, so anything I can say about witnessing that struggle comes from a place of extreme privilege. People very close to me in my life have experienced homelessness, and when I was younger I worked in a drop-in center doing needle exchange and sex worker outreach. I also lived in the back of an adult film warehouse in Times Square.

All that has given me a limited understanding of the lived experience of homelessness but without any of the actual risk or hardship. Anyway, I brought that understanding to my interpretation of Hana and was so inspired by her faith and courage in the face of impossible circumstances, as well as her refusal to accept indignities. I hope that when people watch Tokyo Godfathers they come away more aware of the folks around them that they've allowed themselves to stop seeing. You can't adore Miss Hana and then go out and scorn the person asking for change on the sidewalk.

ANN: Have you ever felt discarded or unseen like Hana and her friends?

SN: Oh, all the time. Maybe less so now, because I try not to go places where I know I'm going to be treated like trash. But I grew up bullied all the time in high school and then, just in general as a trans person. You can achieve every accolade in the world and there's still gonna be someone on the sidelines calling you an abomination or making the argument that you somehow don't exist.

ANN: Was this your first time voice acting for animation? What did you love about it? What were the challenges?

SN: Yeah this was my first voice acting role, though I've also done a couple of audiobooks that have wild characters! I loved that my first voice acting job was voicing Miss Hana! I mean, are you kidding me?! And I loved that I got to be so playful and imaginative in the recording studio. The biggest challenge was definitely landing the synch. I'd be reading the script with one eyeball and watching Hana's lips on the monitor with my other eyeball, just trying to get the English translation to line up with the animation.

ANN: What are some of the notable differences in acting for TV, film, theatre and voice overdub? Any preferences and why?

SN: They're all so different, it's like Philly Cheese Steaks. You go to Philly looking for the best Cheese Steak and it turns out you like the bread from one shop and the cheese from another, and maybe that one has the best meat or peppers. So you try 'em all and you realize, maybe the best Philly Cheese Steak only exists in your mind as a perfect combination of all of them.

ANN: And what was it like to work with Michael Sinterniklaas?

SN: Michael was a blast! We had so much fun! He was directing me from LA while I was in the studio in NYC. We didn't have a visual monitor set up between us, so he would just listen to my takes while watching the film, then I'd hear his notes in my headphones back across the country. Since we didn't have visual cues, I couldn't see him using his body to gesture or emphasize anything, every direction was just a description, whether it was the tone, breath, or intention. It was challenging at times and definitely a new way of working for me, but sometimes he would say just the right thing and then I would do the line one more time and it would come out perfectly, like from a surprising place, a totally new idea for the moment.

ANN: Michael—what was it like to work with Shakina, a seasoned actress but with less experience in voice-over work than some of the folks you work with?

MS: Everything about working with Shakina was perfect. Not having extensive voiceover experience was never an issue. She is already an extraordinary performer and more to the point, a generous soul. Once we had our meeting and initial talk, we found our mutual trust easily and were all about the work to refine and bring Hana to life. It was really a great experience.

Shakina Nayfack, by photographer Justin Winokur

ANN: Shakina—you are a musical theatre performer and writer who wrote three rock musicals and produced on the musical finale of Transparent. Now, for Tokyo Godfathers, you lent your singing voice as well as your songwriting skills to Hana's iconic nightclub scene. How did that come about and what were your experiences and your contributions to that moment?

SN: I was so excited for that moment when we got to see Miss Hana in all her former glory. I wanted it to be perfect and I'm kind of a nerd when it comes to lyric writing, especially scansion and rhyming. So while we were laying the dub down in the studio I asked if I could suggest some different lyrics that would capture the Spanish Cantina vibe of the song. We also played a lot with her register. Hana singing full voice with those deep tones is a choice. So often trans women in musical theatre are somehow expected to have the same vocal range as a cisgender actress, and it's like, my body can't do that, but it can do this.

ANN: What was the premiere like in NYC and what was it like to see and hear live audiences react to your voice characterization only, not you as a flesh and blood entity?

SN: To be honest, the premiere in New York was sort of daunting for me because we had just started implementing social distancing in the state, as part of the COVID-19 measures. I brought a big tube of Lysol wipes and gave them out to everyone so we could wipe down our seats. That's not the ideal way to start a movie premiere, but we made the most of it. Folks who came out had a great time, and I think people were genuinely moved. There is a moment when Miss Hana calls baby Kiyoko “the sweetest little girl in the whole wide world,” and everyone in the theater went, “Awww” and I was like, “Yes! Got 'em!”

ANN: Speaking of that, how would Hana handle the current COVID-19 crisis? What might she do and what advice might she offer?

SN: Well, I imagine she'd yell at everyone to stay inside and wash their hands and not to be racist a-holes when talking about the virus. But on a deeper level, and this goes back to something we were talking about earlier, I think she would ask us not to forget the people who lack adequate resources to shelter, sanitation, and health care. To remember that everyone deserves dignity, and those who have less are not worthless.

ANN: Now that live shows are taking a bit of a forced hiatus, do you envision more voice acting work and opportunities for actors? Would you like to participate in more of that in your career?

SN: Actually, I find myself in a situation I think a lot of other actors are in, which is, the gigs are gone and I've somehow got to get a home studio together. So if there are any recording equipment companies out there that want to sponsor my voice acting career—I'm out here! But seriously, yes, I would love to continue to do voice acting. I hope to be able to originate a character as beloved as Miss Hana, maybe one with more singing! I also have an idea for an animated musical I want to write, so we'll see if I can get that off the ground!

ANN: Are you a fan of anime? Is there a dream character you'd love to lend your voice to?

SN: I don't think I'm well-versed enough to call myself a fan of anime. Like, true fans would put me to shame. But I've seen a lot of the canonical movies and I really enjoy what I'm being exposed to now that Tokyo Godfathers has led me to explore more in the genre. I grew up watching Aeon Flux late at night on MTV, almost in secret. If that were ever rebooted I'd love to be part of her universe. Or whoever the next Ursula the Sea Witch [of Disney's The Little Mermaid] ends up becoming.

ANN: Michael—how did you feel the English dub of Tokyo Godfathers turned out in the end? Are you pleased with the results? Would you have done anything differently given more time, budget, etc?

MS: How I feel, I think, isn't relevant, plus I'm still too close to it to be objective, but the response has been amazing! Every single one of the leads has gotten so much well-deserved praise. And they deserve to be mentioned again here. There's Jon Avner [voice of Gin] who I have worked with since the '90s on video games and— as “true” anime fans will remember—Void, head of the God Hand in the original Berserk series and feature trilogy. He is unique and amazing and he came in for marathon days even while sick. He sounds like Nick Nolte and can transition between gruff, insensitive and gruff tender beautifully.

Then there's our youngest member of the family—Miyuki—played by the rising star Victoria Grace who I first worked with on last years' Oscar-nominated dub of Mirai where she played the titular character. She is an extremely gifted and open performer who gave me a lot of trust to show insecurity, vulnerability and at times even ugliness. Victoria breaks my heart throughout the whole film. But the response to Hana has been so incredible and uplifting! What people have had to say about Hana and Shakina in this film has just been...well, everyone should just give it a Google!

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