In “Spirited Away,” one of the most memorable “characters” is No-Face. It is a mysterious and somewhat endearing presence, and it’s easy for Studio Ghibli fans to inadvertently develop feelings of wanting to “humanize” this character into something attractive. So, let’s take a moment to reflect on what No-Face truly represents.
He is a character who is completely black, with a white mask-like object attached to the area that corresponds to his face. After spotting Chihiro on the bridge, he starts stalking her and stands in the rain in the garden. Chihiro invites him into the bathhouse, which further intensifies his obsession with her. However, he has limited ability to communicate and can only make simple vocalizations like “Ah…” and “Uh…” Therefore, he cannot convey his feelings to Chihiro. By scattering gold that he transformed from clumps of dirt, he manages to gain the favor of the bathhouse employees. After swallowing a frog that approached him in greed for gold, he gains the ability to speak using the voice of the frog.
As mentioned before, the design of Kaonashi (No-Face) is reminiscent of Daijiro Morohoshi masterpiece, “Tower of Anxiety,” which stands near the tracks in the city center.
It is a massive figure covered in pitch-black fabric, giving the impression of a giant shadow. Despite everyone seeing this bizarre form, no one pays it any significant attention. At most, they might respond with a casual remark like, “Oh, it’s there.” Curious individuals who find it suspicious decide to follow it and witness its peculiar behavior… Not only the visual design of No-Face but also the essence of its character exhibits similarities that can be explored further on another occasion. To delve into the nature of No-Face, let’s take a look at the lyrics of the song “Samishii Samishii” (Lonely, Lonely), written by Hayao Miyazaki himself.
Lonely, lonely, I’m all alone.
Hey, turn around and look this way.
I want to eat, I want to devour you.
You’re so cute.
Surely, you won’t feel lonely, right?
According to one theory, it is said that the character of No-Face, who bears a resemblance in demeanor to former Studio Ghibli animator and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (known for “When Marnie Was There” and “The Secret World of Arrietty”), is modeled after him. Miyazaki Hayao has also made statements such as “No-Face exists in everyone’s heart” or “it represents the youth living in modern times.”
In that case, there have been speculations that “Miyazaki himself may be the model” for No-Face, as well as a more bent interpretation that suggests Miyazaki intended it as a representation of the otaku culture he has criticized with a sense of self-loathing, and yet as an attachment to his own otaku nature, resulted in the creation of such a character design.
Psychological Analysis of No-Face
Let’s delve into the “Psychological Analysis of No-Face” for a while, leaving aside other conjectures.
In fact, there exists a personality type within psychoanalytic theory that closely resembles No-Face. It is known as “Schizoid.” This personality type has been analyzed and discussed by Keigo Okonogi in his book “Shizoid Ningen” (Schizoid Individuals, published in the Chikuma Gakugei Bunko series).
Now, let’s explore what it means to be a “schizoid individual.” Here are some key characteristics to consider:
• Avoidance of deep involvement with others (preferring temporary or partial engagement)
• Conformity-driven isolation
• Anxiety about being engulfed or losing oneself
• Grandiosity and greed
To better understand these characteristics, let’s examine them in relation to No Face’s behavioral traits.
It is evident from No-Face’s isolation that he avoids deep involvement with others. It is unlikely that he has close friends, companions, or even a romantic partner. Of course, this doesn’t mean that schizoid individuals don’t desire intimate relationships. However, they often anticipate the pain of losing those connections, known as “object loss,” which makes it challenging for them to form loving relationships. As a result, schizoid individuals tend to have limited emotional expression and may avoid closing the emotional distance or engaging in emotional exchanges with others.
“Conformist withdrawal” may be a somewhat obscure term. It refers to the tendency to behave in a way that aligns with others, avoiding creating waves and deeply engaging in a given situation. It is a form of wisdom or adaptive strategy employed to avoid interpersonal conflicts.
In this regard, schizoid individuals can be seen as wearing a “mask of adaptation” that changes according to the situation, much like a chameleon. This is also referred to as an “as if personality.” This description applies to No-Face as well. He does not possess a consistent personality or face of his own, so he attaches masks. He cannot speak with his own voice, but instead uses the voice of the swallowed frog. Therefore, the masks of No-Face and the voice of others (the frog) serve as his “as if personality.”
The characteristic of having “temporary, partial involvement” also applies here. No-Face views the employees, including the frog, as mere tools for his own benefit. That’s why he tries to win their favor by scattering money and can casually take their voices to use as his own.
The feeling of being swallowed up by anxiety and losing oneself is not directly depicted in the film, but isn’t No-Face’s isolation a result of fearing being consumed and losing one’s identity through interactions with others?
On the other hand, the sense of omnipotence and greed is portrayed explicitly. Power-hungry No-Face, who has infiltrated the bathhouse, becomes inflated with a sense of omnipotence, believing that he can obtain anything with money. The only method he uses to approach his targets is by “swallowing” them.
In reality, No-Face swallows various things. In addition to the frog mentioned earlier, he devours massive amounts of food and even indiscriminately engulfs the employees who come seeking money. However, Chihiro refuses his temptations and, in the end, forces him to swallow the bitter dumpling, causing him to go into a frenzy while vomiting everything he has consumed.
This scene is terrifying to the point of being somewhat cruel. During a preview screening, some children even started crying when they witnessed No-Face going on a rampage. The merciless execution of scenes like this provides a glimpse into the depth of Miyazaki’s artistry.
Indeed, the fear of being swallowed or engulfed is one of the most primal fears for human beings. Other forms of violence, such as being punched, kicked, or stabbed, may still be conceptual in nature. However, the fear of being swallowed represents a deeply ingrained, instinctual fear at a fundamental level.
According to psychoanalysis, the initial fear that infants project onto their mothers within their relationship is indeed the fear of being “swallowed up” by the mother. It is understandable for children to become frightened and think “next, it will be me” when they witness a monster that voraciously devours everything in its path.
In essence, the problem with No-Face is that he cannot establish a balanced relationship with objects of attachment. He can only express affection by devouring not only disliked objects but also objects of attachment. The types of relationships he can have are either unrelated or based on consumption.
Unable to devour Chihiro, who recognized his existence and gave him acceptance by inviting him indoors, No-Face’s obsession turns into a stalker-like behavior. The initial timidity and subsequent rampage of No-Face might stem from the anger of having his fragile self-love wounded, which he had concealed firmly beneath his mask. Furthermore, from a more complex perspective, a subject who can only establish devouring relationships is also a subject plagued by the fear of being devoured. It can be considered that No-Face’s obsession with Chihiro arose as a denial of the fear of being devoured by her. At that moment, No-Face might have seen in Chihiro a figure resembling a “mother.”
Who is No-Face?
As we have discussed so far, the character of No-Face bears many resemblances to the traits of a “schizoid personality.” However, in the context of the current “developmental disorder bubble,” it is also conceivable to interpret him as a typical example of the “autism spectrum.” If we pay attention to his limited social and communication skills, as well as his peculiar behaviors, such an interpretation cannot be entirely ruled out. Nevertheless, I purposely refrain from embracing that perspective because I believe the core of No-Face’s “pathology” lies in the internal conflict of being capable of forming relationships only based on desire and the dynamics of “swallowing or being swallowed.” If this is indeed the case, his pathology diverges even from developmental disorders characterized by an “indifference to social interactions.”
Keigo Okonogi (author of “Schizoid Individuals”) does not simply view the characteristics of “schizoid individuals” as pathological, but rather as adaptive strategies widely shared among modern individuals. Adding my own interpretation to this, it can be said that “schizoid individuals exist in everyone’s hearts.” It is a personality mode that anyone can fall into under certain circumstances. What are these circumstances? Specifically, when one loses their “face,” in other words, when they become “anonymous.”
There are countless situations where people can become anonymous, such as when traveling to unfamiliar places, in crowded trains, among crowds where nobody knows them, or during the excitement of sports events. But, the most easily accessible space for experiencing anonymity is the online world.
When confronted with their own desires as an anonymous entity with a concealed face, individuals inevitably face the dual nature of their desires. They must decide whether to devour and destroy their objects of desire or be devoured and destroyed by them. This inner conflict of being the devourer or the devoured persists endlessly.
In the online world, even minor hostilities easily escalate into destructive impulses. This is the root cause of frequent “flame wars” on the internet. It is precisely the anonymity that transforms self-love into a destructive force. In this mode, the more one behaves selfishly, the more their own self is damaged. Let us remember what happened to the inflated No-Face consumed by desires.
At the end of the story, No-Face, who had consumed everything driven by desire, spits it all out and becomes docile. Accompanied by Chihiro, they board a train and head to Zeniba’s house, where they decide to stay. By letting go of his object of desire (Chihiro) and surrendering himself to a stronger and greater presence (Zeniba), No-Face undergoes a metaphorical “castration.” In return, they regain their “identity.” Chihiro reclaims her name, and No-Face regains his face. This represents a departure from the realm of “story” and a return to the realm of “everyday life.” The ending of the film is not merely a cathartic moment, but rather, it evokes a subtle sense of melancholy, perhaps for that very reason.
Tamaki Saito was born in Iwate Prefecture, Japan, in 1966. He completed his doctoral program at the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Tsukuba and holds a Doctor of Medicine degree. Currently, he is a professor of social psychiatry at the University of Tsukuba’s Faculty of Medicine and Medical Sciences. His areas of expertise include psychopathology and psychopathography in adolescence and young adulthood. He has authored several notable books, including “Psychological Analysis of Combat Beautiful Girls” (Chikuma Bunko) and “What is Open Dialogue” (Igaku-Shoin), among others.