I love Studio Ghibli. I love the courageous heroines, the lush artwork, the magical landscapes and the whirlwind adventures, the delicate balance between whimsy and maleficence. Most of all, I love the sense of wonder—equal wonder for both the fantastic and the real.
Spirited Away was my first Studio Ghibli film and it still holds a special place in my heart. There are many reasons to love this movie, but the one I keep coming back to is a monster called No-Face.
What, exactly, is No-Face?
That’s an excellent question. Unlike many of the other creatures in Spirited Away, No-Face has no obvious origin in Japanese folklore. He flits in and out of the story at his leisure, a creation with no face, no name, and no voice of his own. We never learn where he came from. He has the capacity for both kindness and evil, and we see him do both—but never learn why he is the way he is.
No-Face is simply No-Face.
Who he is is what he does—so, spoilers for Spirited Away, if you haven’t seen it. (Which you should!)
He first appears to the heroine, Chihiro, as a quiet and lonely apparition. She later lets him into the bath house to get out of the rain. As thanks, he helps her at a critical moment, but after everyone has gone to sleep, things go sideways. No-Face eats one of the spirits who works there and steals his voice.
It turns out that No-Face can create gold, and everyone in the bath house wants a piece. The workers shower him with attention, flattery, and platter upon platter of food, just for the chance to get a piece of his magic gold. He soon becomes everyone’s favorite customer.
Everyone but Chihiro.
She has more important things to do—and even when No-Face offers her a huge pile of gold, she rejects it with a polite “No thank you” and rushes off to help her dying friend.
No-Face wilts. The gold in his hands rots. He goes into a frenzy and gobbles up two of the workers on the spot. When Chihiro eventually confronts him, she rejects every offer for gold. Instead, she gives him medicine that makes him throw up all of the food (and people) he’s eaten and lures him away from the bath house.
Once purged, he returns to his voiceless—almost meek—state of only-sort-of-being. He accompanies Chihiro to the countryside, never once a threat to her on their journey together. No-Face then settles down to a peaceful life of spinning thread for an old woman.
His story is nothing if not unexpected.
It is also told almost completely without words. No-Face literally fades in and out of existence, an ominous presence lurking in the background—and yet, his spirit feels inextricably tied to the heart of the movie.
Spirited Away is about a lot of things—coming of age, courage, self-reliance, greed, giant radish monsters taking baths.
If No-Face is anything, he is lonely. It’s not hard to sympathize with his motives, if not his actions. He reaches out to Chihiro several times, and up until that whole eating-people fiasco, his efforts seem like an earnest attempt to make friends. He seems innocent. Naive, even. His gifts make him very popular, and he’s happy to throw his gold away in the name of more food, more attention.
Does No-Face think relationships are a transaction?
It’s hard not to pity someone who feels this way—especially when we see how shallow these bonds turn out to be. Above all, he wants Chihiro, but she’s the only one he cannot buy.
She’s also the only one who does what’s best for him, consistently, throughout the whole film. She lets him in from the rain. She doesn’t enable his gluttony. She gives him medicine to help his “sickness”—which is more moral and emotional than physical.
Notably, the other spirits kept No-Face out of the bath house even before he went Donner party on the employees—he was already some kind of spirit pariah. And maybe there’s a good reason for that: as Chihiro points out, being in the bath house seems to make him crazy. But not all social interaction has this effect on him. He’s happy living with an old witch in the middle of nowhere.
If No-Face gets his voice and physical characteristics from the people he’s eaten, then maybe he also reflects their vices. He became a greedy monster because the bath house runs on greed.
Let’s take a look at his behavior inside the bath house:
No-Face, himself, is extremely gluttonous. He eats everything—everything! Even people! Gross, dude. Seriously, eat a Snickers.
But if the bath house workers weren’t so enamored of his gold, he would hold no power of them. In the end, his gold isn’t even real. If you’ve picked up on Miyazaki’s love of nature and all things pastoral from his other films, it’s not too much of a stretch to see this as a critique of an urban, capitalist society.
Is No-Face purely evil? No. Of course not. He is only capable of great evil, like every one of us. No-Face is captivating because he is no one and everyone all at once.
And that’s all the more powerful because he doesn’t tell you a word of it. It’s left to you to figure out who and what No-Face is—and where, inside you, there is a little bit of No-Face.
Just like all the best monsters.