Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away provides a contrast between the ideals of modern and ancient Japan through the supernatural journey of a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro through a bathhouse for spirits. Throughout the film, Chihiro encounters various obstacles that she must overcome to retain the chance to return to the human world, including the task of bathing a disgusting stink spirit that turns out to be the spirit of a polluted river, and a quest to return a golden seal that was stolen from Zeniba, the sister of the woman who rules the bathhouse, Yubaba, by Haku, the boy-dragon that Chihiro loves. Yet, throughout much of the story after Chihiro’s entry into the spirit world, a single mysterious character is ominously present. This character, a black blob with a mask that resembles a face, becomes known to the audience as No-Face. Despite this aura of mystery that defines him, No-Face effectively represents Chihiro’s confidence in her ideals and serves as the cause for Chihiro’s progression from the warrior phase to the hero phase of her journey.
Chihiro begins her story as markedly different from the characters surrounding her. Before she enters the spirit world, she is resistant to her parents’ greed for the food that they find in the unattended stall in the abandoned theme park. She is skeptical about this greed, and refuses to accept it herself, but is powerless to prevent her parents from being subject to it. Fortunately for her, this is precisely what prevents her from being turned into a pig in the same way as her parents. She maintains this resistance to greed and avarice as she enters the spirit world. She follows Haku’s advice to ask Kamaji for a job, and doesn’t desire any more than what Yubaba ends up offering her when asked. In part, this is what leads to her acceptance by the other workers at the bathhouse. They initially despise her because she is a human, and modern humans are prone to greed and avarice, but by the end of the story, they hail her as a powerful heroine. Yet when No-Face begins offering gold to the workers in exchange for their continued service, none of them resist it, except Chihiro. One could assume that this is because she doesn’t want to be eaten, like several workers and the frog were, but the simple fact is that she doesn’t need or desire gold like the other workers do. She is not greedy. Ultimately, this continuous refusal of gold that she doesn’t need is what allows her to feed No-Face the emetic dumpling when they are alone, and cause him to throw up everything he has eaten. Thus, for the first time, Chihiro has taken a position as a teacher. She has passed on to No-Face, albeit in a very forced way, her virtue of generosity. In due course, this is the purpose of any hero or heroine’s “Return with the Elixir” (see this page on the Hero’s Journey): to pass on their own characteristics that allow them to succeed to others. Furthermore, this transition also means that Chihiro has now become the Heroine rather than the Warrior (see this document on the Character Arc).
While No-Face is obviously a villain in the story because he eats workers in the bathhouse and is a symbol of avarice, it is important to remember that he never tried to harm Chihiro until after she feeds him the emetic dumpling and he begins to return to his original, relatively harmless form. In fact, after she let him into the Bathhouse because she didn’t want him standing in the rain, he actually helps her by giving her a basket of bath tokens for her task of bathing the stink spirit. By doing so, he also takes on the role of a mentor who is concerned for his pupil, Chihiro. Therefore, he is once again responsible for helping her conquer her final obstacles in the spirit world and return to that of the humans.
Despite being a test of her resistance to avarice, No-Face is a test of another sort of generosity that Chihiro possesses. Chihiro is very accepting of various characters from the very beginning of her journey. The most important action of acceptance towards the beginning of the movie is Chihiro letting No-Face into the bathhouse. Nevertheless, this turns out to be quite a naïve action, as No-Face quickly becomes a gluttonous villain who is the manifestation of greed. However, the second time Chihiro has to accept No-Face, she is not doing so naively, but rather as a mentor herself. This is when the conductor on the ghost train asks her whether all four of them (Chihiro, Bô, Yubaba’s bird and No-Face) are travelling to Swamp Bottom, where Zeniba lives. Chihiro thinks for a minute, somewhat surprised that No-Face followed her, but says yes. The significance of this is that, even though Chihiro accepts No-Face and lets him travel with her, no one else does. The only person who explicitly says this when Chihiro tells No-Face to leave the bathhouse because it is hurting him is Lin, but the rest of the workers there are obviously fearful of him after seeing him eat others. Being above her world, only a heroine is capable of taking this sort of action of acceptance, and more importantly, forgiveness. However, the more important factor for Chihiro is that being unique and superior in this way is what allows her to advance into a superior world once again, though this time it is her own world of humans.
Both of these ideals, resistance to greed and acceptance or forgiveness, were a key part of Ancient Japan. By having these be an important part of Chihiro’s character as a heroine, Miyazaki effectively puts her in a position where she is meant to represent Ancient Japan. Therefore, it is understandable that the omnipresent, but continuously growing villain that is No-Face is meant to represent Modern Japan with its corrupted ideals that are focused around materialism. Thus, in conquering or curing the No-Face that has been “sickened” by the bathhouse, Chihiro proves to the world that the supposedly virtuous and good ideals of Ancient Japan are superior to those of the present. Therefore, while the river spirit that Chihiro cleans as a stink spirit was an environmental evil that she also conquers and Yubaba is the traditional storybook evildoer, No-Face acts as the villain whose curing/conquering allows Chihiro to be recognized as a national heroine who saves Japan from its own internal monster. Once again, without No-Face to demand a show of all the virtues that she has fostered, Chihiro would never reach the honorable heroine stage that marks her as both a memorable character and a teacher to the modern world.
No-Face directly affects the development of Chihiro as a character by serving as the obstacle in her journey that causes her to show her true nature of being resistant to greed and being forgiving. In doing so, Chihiro is able to develop into the ultimate form of her character: the heroine. While most characters progress to this stage in their stories, few make this progression by switching roles with a character as Chihiro does with No-Face by becoming his mentor. More significantly, No-Face represents Modern Japan with its corrupted ideals. Therefore, it could be said that Miyazaki’s purpose of making Spirited Away was to inspire the younger generations to adopt the better, purer ideals that once defined Japan and use them to overcome the materialism that is eating Japan from the inside out. Furthermore, by showing that No-Face specifically adopts these negative ideals inside the bathhouse, which is very traditional, Miyazaki is specifically teaching children that the characteristics that Chihiro has are unique today to the aforementioned younger generations who do not come from the traditional spirit world that Chihiro is transported to. Seeing current events in the Middle East and the US in which these younger generations rise up against authority and corruption through the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, it is fair to believe that Miyazaki’s advice to the future to overcome these corrupt ideals may well be considered by those he is offering it to, and may come to define the Japan of the near future.