An Animated Dissection: The Enigma of “Spirited Away’s” No(h) Face
10 years ago, American audiences were treated to the theatrical release of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature, Spirited Away (or Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, as it’s called in Japan). Originally released in Japan in 2001, Miyazaki’s unpredictable story about a girl trapped in a world of spirits became a box-office juggernaut in its homeland, becoming the most profitable film of all time in that country, overtaking Titanic’s Japanese box-office grosses from 1997/1998.
Its reception on American shores however, was a little different. Appearing on only 151 screens during its September 2002 release, it quickly sank from sight, but returned to the spotlight over the course of awards season, taking home numerous critics awards, before managing to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar for the year.
Spirited Away was filled with many strange creatures, but there was one that seemed truly enigmatic: the figure/thing/entity known as No Face. When I first heard his name, I thought it was actually spelled ‘Noh Face,’ given that his face seems to resemble masks from Japanese Noh Theater productions.
No Face’s presence and actions have never been fully explained by Miyazaki, and so many people have come up with their own ideas regarding his actions. Given my penchant for Animated Dissections, I have my own thoughts and ideas as to Hayao Miyazaki’s masked enigma, and below, I intend to present them.
When we first see No Face, he’s standing on the bridge to the spirit’s bath house, just watching the spirits passing on by. Almost noone pays No Face any mind or notices him, until Chihiro passes him. We see her eyes look at him for a few moments, and he seems to stare after her.
The next appearance of No Face is on the bridge the next day. Chihiro also makes eye contact with him, before attempting to walk past him. As a quick ‘hello,’ she gives him a slight nod, and then rushes past. Though when she turns to look back at No Face, he’s disappeared.
The next time we see him, is after Chihiro returns to the bath house. As she enters through a side door, we see No Face appear briefly, walking towards the entrance, before disappeaering into thin air.
It almost seems that No Face is a creature that does not know who he is, or what purpose he serves in life. We never know exactly when he decided to stand on the bridge, or even how long he’s been there. Though one has to wonder if Chihiro’s little glances and even her polite bow was a trigger of sorts. Kind of like a puppy tagging along behind someone who shows it a little kindness, No Face follows Chihiro onto the bath house grounds.
The next time we see No Face, he’s standing in one of the bath house’s gardens, as Chihiro empties a bucket in a nearby doorway. This time, she addresses him verbally, concerned that he may be getting wet. As she’s called away by her co-worker Lin, she tells No Face that she’ll leave the door open for him. Taking this as an invitation, No Face then enters the bath house. The smile on his face almost seems to look like he’s actually happy that not only has someone like Chihiro talked and noticed him, but she did something for him (let him into this place).
No Face’s next appearance comes when Chihiro attempts to get a wooden token needed for cleaning a tub in the bathhouse. The Manager refuses to provide her with one, before No Face invisibly picks one up, and tosses it to Chihiro. We see No Face appears briefly with only Chihiro seeing him. After she receives the token, she expresses thanks, which seems to be directed towards No Face.
Once the token has been used, No Face appears in the bath where Chihiro is working. Unsure why he’s there, Chihiro’s first assumption is that he’s a guest like the other spirits, and has come to use the bath. However, she is surprised when No Face presents her with more bath tokens. We also find that he has a voice, but only murmurs and gives little sounds of “ah,” almost like he’s shy, or afraid to talk. Even though she’s offered the tokens, Chihiro refuses to take them. We see No Face hesitate for a moment, before fading away, and the tokens clatter to the floor.
At this point, I equate No Face to being almost like a kid trying to gain favor with another. He noted how Chihiro really appreciated that first bath token, and most likely assumed, ‘If she liked just one, she’ll love a whole lot more!’ However, this plan didn’t pan out. It could also be her negative reaction to them that caused him to go away, feeling ashamed that he hadn’t given her what she wanted.
After this, No Face appears briefly in an unoccupied bath chamber, after Chihiro has succeeded in cleansing a large River Spirit, who has left copious amounts of gold behind in lieu of payment. No Face has taken notice on how the majority of the bath house turned out for this guest, and how excited they were that he left gold behind. We see him holding some pieces of gold and ‘thinking,’ before he disappears again.
He then appears later that evening in the same tub that was used to bathe the River Spirit, and encounters a little frog in the employ of the bath house. He lures the frog with the promise of gold (that seems to pour forth from his hands), and swallows the creature. This is the first indication that No Face has any sort of physical mouth, as we see inner gums and teeth as the frog is consumed.
The bathhouse manager hears the commotion, and comes to investigate. He then encounters No Face, this time larger, sprouting frog-like legs, and speaking in the voice of the frog. The manager grows a bit apprehensive that the voice sounds so familiar, but No Face then starts giving plenty of gold, demanding food and a bath, along with having the entire staff of the bath house awoken to serve him. One also has to wonder if maybe some of No Face’s current actions are fueled by the mindset of the frog, who like many in the bathhouse, has a rather greedy nature (after all, he snuck back into the baths looking for missed pieces of gold).
Some hours later, we see No Face sitting in the bath filled with water, as numerous staff keep yelling for his attention, and providing him with food. No Face just keeps demanding more of everything, and sprinkling gold pieces around. Eventually, he leaves the tub, and walks through the bath house, as the manager sings a song about their large and very rich customer. The rest of the staff just smile and eagerly ask for tips.
Chihiro has no idea of what has been going on, and only finds out when she attempts to get to Yubaba’s office to help Haku. Seeing No Face, she thanks him for helping her with the bath token earlier.
No Face brings the procession to a halt when he flings the bathhouse manager aside, then extends his hands out, causing a pile of gold to appear. He happily offers it to Chihiro, but she claims she doesn’t want it. This causes his face to falter, as she then rushes off, causing No Face to let the gold fall to the floor, as the greedy inhabitants of the bath house rush for the pieces.
A pained expression passes over his face, like he can’t comprehend why she does not accept his ‘gifts’ like everyone else. Along with the multiple bath tokens he offered, this is the second time he has been ‘spurned’ by her.
In frustration, No Face then consumes the bathhouse manager, and one of the female employees. This causes the rest of the staff to panic and flee, as No Face grows larger.
After this scene, Chihiro sneaks into Yubaba’s chambers at the top of the bathhouse, where she overhears Yubaba angrily talking on her phone with some of the staff. It is here that Chihiro first hears this thing she’s met referred to as a ‘No Face’ (or ‘Kaonashi,’ in Japanese). Yubaba then leaves to deal with No Face.
Upon meeting with him, Yubaba learns how Chihiro invited No Face into the baths. Attempting to calm No Face, he soon demands to have Chihiro brought to him. The staff manage to find Chihiro, and she is then ‘presented’ to No Face.
This time when we see him, No Face has grown considerably larger, and sprouted extra limbs. The Noh mask is suspended on a neck, and appears to have also grown hair atop it. One noticeable trait is that the mask’s mouth looks ‘confused’ and the face ‘blank,’ and seems moreso like a mask than the creature’s face now. When No Face spoke before, it was without any mask or mouth movements. This time, it is through the mouth with gums and teeth that he speaks. As well, his voice alternates between that of the bathhouse manager, and the frog.
No Face requests that Chihiro try some of the food that is sitting around the room, or take some gold from him.
When Chihiro remains silent, he asks what she would like. When she responds that she would like to leave and go somewhere, he is taken aback. She then says that he should return where he came from, claiming she doesn’t want anything he has to offer.
This negative declaration causes No Face’s neck and mask to withdraw into its body, almost as if it’s expressing pain of rejection. Chihiro then inquires where No Face came from, and if he has a Mother or Father as well. Speaking with the frog’s voice, No Face says that he has noone, and that he is lonely. This declaration is one of the few lines we have in which we learn a little about No Face. It seems he’s a lost being who just wants to belong, and that in a sense, he is ’empty.’ One could see his gluttony in the bathhouse as a means to fill himself up to escape the emptiness, but as we’ve seen, this has provided him with no satisfaction.
It also makes one wonder: if Chihiro had accepted the extra bath tokens or gold from No Face previously, would he have consumed her the way he did the frog?
Almost as a way to counter Chihiro’s inquisition, an arm extends filled with gold, and No Face (using the voice of the bathhouse manager) demands she take it. The arm almost looks like it’s going to grab her, when Bou (Yubaba’s baby, who has been turned into a mouse) intervenes, saving her with his small-yet-heroic act.
This distraction allows Chihiro to present No Face with a small ‘bitter dango’ (aka a bitter dumpling) that she received from the River Spirit she helped bathe. She tells No Face that she was saving it for her parents, but is giving it to him instead. Chihiro already used a portion of the dango to help Haku regurgitate a sickness that was eating away at him from within, so the audience is well aware of what its bitterness can do to a being.
No Face immediately swallows it, but due to its bitter taste, he begins to vomit up a black substance. Still sickened, he turns to Chihiro, and demands to know what she just gave him.
He next charges after her, as Chihiro runs down flight after flight of stairs. Her intention soon becomes clear: lure him out of the bath house, away from where he can do harm or further damage.
As No Face continues to follow her, he begins to shrink in size, losing bits of himself like sticky tar, and even regurgitating the people he swallowed.
Making his way outside, No face has returned to normal. Seeing Chihiro, he follows her along a submerged railroad track. By now, some would assume that No Face is the equivalent of some form of ‘spirit-world stalker,’ but to me, the reason why he follows Chihiro, is that she is the only thing that has so far made any sense in this world. The bathhouse both confused and mentally messed him up, given the mindset of those who worked in the establishment. Once outside of the place, any wants and desires that its inhabitants possessed do not affect his judgement.
Chihiro is one of the few beings that still has managed to keep a level head, and this could be the reason why No Face pursues her even now.
As a train pulls up to a small concrete platform, Chihiro is about to get on, when the conductor (a shadowy figure whose face we never see), notices No Face behind Chihiro. She offers to invite him along, and they board the train. Inside, there are a number of other shadowy figures.
As an aside to our No Face-related article, these figures are another enigma in Miyazaki’s story, as their somewhat see-through appearance seems similar to No Face’s black body. Though these figures are wearing human clothing, one has to wonder if maybe they were humans who also accidentally wandered into the spirit world, and eventually forgot who they were, hence their see-through, non-human features. In the beginning of the film, Chihiro was in danger of becoming transparent as well. Would what happened to these shadowy human figures have befallen her too if Haku hadn’t intervened?
Another little character moment for No Face comes after Chihiro walks away from the train’s door, and sits down on a seat. No Face seems to have a small panic-attack, unsure just what to do. It’s almost reminiscent of him being out in the bathhouse’s gardens, until Chihiro gives him a purpose. This time, she motions for him to sit next to her, and be still. He obeys, and stays docile through their trip.
The train takes the small group to Swamp Bottom, where Chihiro hopes to find a way to save her friend, Haku. No face continues to quietly follow her to the house of Zeniiba, Yubaba’s twin sister. Upon reaching it, a female voice beckons them inside. No Face is apprehensive of its sound, but Chihiro verbally gets him to enter the small cottage. After Zeniiba hears out Chihiro regarding Haku, she takes notice of No Face, and (addressing him by name) requests that he sit down.
It seems in this environment, much like that of the bathhouse, No Face is influenced by those around him. At Zeniiba’s table, we see him politely sipping tea, and eating what appears to be cheesecake. He also seems intent on keeping to himself, not once taking interest in Chihiro and Zeniiba’s conversation nearby. When he finishes his piece of cake, he just sits quietly.
After this, we see No Face working at a spinning wheel, where Zeniiba gives him positive comments on what he’s doing. This is also one of the first times since leaving the bathhouse that the mask on his face has a smile on it.
Once the spinning of thread is done, Zeniiba can be seen teaching No Face how to knit. Unlike Yubaba, Zeniiba is definitely the direct opposite of her sister. While Yubaba is moreso about wealth and more expensive things, Zeniiba is more down-to-earth. Living in a small thatched cottage, greeting her guests by preparing tea, and being more practical in some things. When she gives Chihiro a hairband that will offer her protection, she tells how her friends (including No Face) each contributed to its creation.
Eventually, Haku comes for Chihiro, and as they prepare to leave, Zeniiba tells No Face that he can stay and help her in her cottage. No Face eagerly nods his head, even verbalizing the small “Ah” sound, as a sign that he accepts her offer. It seems like a good place for him to stay, as there seems to be almost no outside influences that could cause him to pick up bad character traits, and Zeniiba’s kindness and generosity towards him and Chihiro, surely will help him as well.
The last we see of No Face, is him and Zeniiba waving goodbye as Haku takes off with Chihiro on his back. And with that final image, No Face’s journey to find a place to belong, appears to be over.
And there you have it. My observations and ideas regarding one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most enigmatic characters. Just remember, a lot of what was expressed is my interpretations, and I’m sure there are plenty of other people out there with their own. However, I have not read or found very many online.
When I first read The Art of Spirited Away, there wasn’t that much regarding No Face for character concepts, and the small bit of art that was there, provided these rather shocking drawings:
These images are definitely more colorful than the final images of No Face, and makes one wonder just what some of his original concepts could have been to make him so bright and ornate.
One little thing I was surprised was that upon writing this article, I suddenly found myself opening a door to other observations about Spirited Away that I have also been pondering. Much like my Animated Dissection on Howl’s Moving Castle‘s Sophie, I intend to write some more thoughts regarding certain aspects of the film at a later time.
“No Face is basically expressionless, but I ended up adding just a tiny bit of expression. It might have been better to make his mask more Noh-like without any expression at all, conveying his expressions by lighting. No Face swallows the bath house workers, and I thought it might have been interesting if he acquired their personalities and ability to reason. This way he might become more human and appealing” – Supervising Animator, Masashi Ando, quoted from The Art of Spirited Away