I once was friends with No-Face

In Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away there is a spirit called No-Face (カオナシ kaonashi, lit. “Faceless”). At the beginning of the movie the spirit appears small, meek and semi-transparent. It stands on a bridge, watching other spirits walk by. They do not notice it. The main character, Chihiro (a human), acknowledges the spirit when she is on her way to the spirit’s bathhouse, and No-Face follows behind her. Later, she sees No-Face in the garden outside the bathhouse, and she invites him inside.

Chihiro acknowledging No-Face

At this stage, No-Face has no voice. He tries to interact with Chihiro, but can only make “uh uh uh” sounds. She feels compassion and wants to help No-Face, but she doesn’t understand what he wants. He ends up disappearing, and wanders aimlessly through the bathhouse.

The bathhouse is populated by horrible spirits. Not really “evil” per se, but selfish, greedy, and destructive. No-Face wanders around, observing but unnoticed. The next creature to acknowledge No-Face is a greedy frog-like spirit who believes No-Face can make gold. “Gimmee gimmee gimmee!” the Frog Spirit says. No-Face eats him.

No-Face consumes the frog and takes on his personality.

We immediately see that eating the greedy Frog Spirit is symbolic of something more: No-Face begins to sprout Frog-like arms and legs, and speak using the Frog Spirit’s voice. No-Face didn’t just consume the Frog Spirit’s body: he consumed (and adopted) its personality, as well.

It gets worse. No-Face continues to get adoration from the greedy and selfish guests at the bathhouse, and he continues to consume them. He grows large and vicious, and greedy and selfish, in the process.

“I want to eat everything!” No-Face says at one point, speaking with the voices of the spirits he has consumed.

“I think being in the bathhouse makes him crazy,” Chihiro observes, “He’s only bad in the bath house. He needs to get out of there.”

The film has a happy ending: Chihiro poisons No-Face with a bitter dumpling, making him vomit. He gets mad and begins to chase Chihiro, and she leads him out of the bathhouse and as far away as possible from the bathhouse grounds. As he chases her, he continues to vomit up the people he has swallowed. He gets smaller and smaller, as the viciousness and greed of the spirits he consumed leave his body. He ends up in a calm and pleasant environment, which he also absorbs and imitates, becoming a calm and pleasant spirit.

No-Face pleasantly sipping tea while surrounded by good influences.

Unfortunately, not every No-Face has a happy ending. Some No-Faces never escape the bathhouse.

“No-Face is inside of everyone.” –Hayao Miyazaki

We probably all have known a No-Face at one time in our lives. No-Face is lost and desperately looking for identity and approval. The search for identity and the search for approval are inexorably linked: he wants to figure out who he should be so that he can get the attention and love that he craves. He mirrors those around him, hoping that by doing this he will win their approval or even their adoration.

When I lived in Los Angeles I knew a lot of young aspiring actors, and there were plenty of No-Faces among them. They would wander from social circle to social circle, trying on personalities like designer shirts: a new one for each season.

Eventually they settle down and figure out who they are. And even though it is based on a combination of traits they “ingested” from others (like Miyazaki’s No-Face), it becomes the face that they call their own. If you have a No-Face as a friend or a loved one, you hope that he will make good choices about who to surround himself with, and which traits he decides to keep in the end.

I used to be friends with a No-Face whose path followed very closely the No-Face in Spirited Away… except he never got out of the bathhouse. When I first met him he was standing on the bridge, desperate to be acknowledged. But somewhere along the way he entered that bathhouse of the spirits, and ate that Frog. As with Miyazaki’s No-Face, things went dramatically down hill from there.

I tried for many years to lead him out of the bathhouse, but things in the real world don’t always turn out like they do in the movies. My friendship with that No-Face ended years ago; however, he still crops up in the news from time to time. Based on that, I know that he is still in that bathhouse: fat from devouring the psyches of those around him, and demanding more.

No-Face reveling in greed and selfishness

Some people reading this might be tempted to think that, by describing my former friend as No-Face, I am looking to create sympathy for him or excuse what he has become. Nothing about this story exculpatory. I despise what he has become, and I blame him without reservation for the choices he has made that led his spirit to take on the selfish, greedy, and destructive form it has.

But I also believe that a Satanist should not be an essentialist. Leave essentialism to the supernaturalists: they are the ones who believe that your character is somehow encapsulated by an eternal non-physical “soul”. They are the ones who believe in “evil” and “good” without nuance.

Because Satanism is a carnal religion, a materialist religion, we know that the human animal is an ever-changing product of its environment. We hold individuals wholly responsible for their choices and actions, while recognizing that we are physical machines embedded in the physical machine of the universe: we make and are made by our environments every second of the day.

A common theme in many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films is that many demons were not always demons. I can acknowledge the forces that created the demon, without excusing the demon for the terrible things it does. I can mourn the loss of the non-demon that might have been if things had gone differently, and that doesn’t change my anger or my judgment about the demon as-he-is.

I don’t have to believe that the Demon Now was a Demon Always in order to judge it.

In an interview originally in the French movie magazine “POSITIF” (April 2002 volume), Hayao Miyazaki says, “I made this movie for my friend’s two daughters. Like Chihiro, they are also 10 years old. I didn’t want to show them something like the struggle between good and evil. I wanted to show them the truth about the world.

The world is complicated, and I believe Hayao Miyazaki’s character No-Face gives us an opportunity to reflect on that.