You probably recognize this guy as No Face, from Spirited Away. If you haven’t seen Spirited Away, you should stop reading now, sign off the computer, go find a copy and watch it. It’s that good. It’s one of the very, very few films that I recommend without any reservation at all. If you haven’t seen it, please don’t read any more of this, because this film really deserves to be seen with innocent eyes.
There are many wonderful characters in the film, but No Face is my favorite. He’s an example of what I’m starting to think is my favorite kind of character: the monster who isn’t.
As a monster, he’s very powerful, as demonstrated in the most destructive scene in the film, when he runs amok in the bath-house. Even Yubaba’s magic can’t stop him.
Also like most monsters, he has a limited ability to communicate. He can’t really speak, except by using someone else’s voice (in, shall we say, rather special circumstances). He communicates mainly by gestures and a kind of soft moaning. (His mask also changes a little bit from the normal somewhat happy look seen above to surprised, confused, angry, or sorrowful. It’s quite remarkable how expressive this simple mask is.)
What he seems to want most desperately is a place to belong, and a small measure of acceptance. He doesn’t demand love or admiration, he seems as if he would be happy to be ignored, as long as he was ignored among friends. We get no hint of his origins and he remains a mystery to the end, but that he’s very lonely, and has been for a long time, is quite apparent.
In his first interaction with Sen, she shows him kindness by leaving a door in the bath-house open so he can come inside out of the pouring rain. In return, he helps her to get a needed bath token when the guy in charge of such things refuses her. Sen’s gratitude—I get the impression this is the first emotional reaction No Face has ever been given–inspires him to procure a whole handful of tokens, thinking that this is what one does to be accepted—give people things. And he’s genuinely puzzled when she tells him she doesn’t need (and can’t use) any more tokens. Confused, he continues to insist but she still can’t accept the tokens. He simply hasn’t interacted with other beings before, so he doesn’t know the rules–but he also doesn’t give up.
He somehow takes note of the how the River God’s gift of gold was received, and tries his gift-giving again, creating gold nuggets which he gives to an eager bath-house frog. He’s much more successful this time. He then swallows the frog whole, and begins taking on his physical characteristics (and speaking with his voice). And he seems to take on the frog’s greed as well, figuring (I think) that he’s finally hit the right note, that this must be the basis of friendship.
Soon, the other bath-house attendants are fawning and fussing over him as he produces gold from his palms. When the realization dawns on him that it’s the gold that’s been accepted and not him, that’s when he becomes monstrous. He seems intoxicated by actually receiving emotional responses, and is distressed that they’re turning out to be false. He demands to see Sen, the only person who has shown him genuine kindness—he wants to be liked by her, that seems to be the one thing in his world that has any meaning for him. But he doesn’t know how to be likeable; all he’s learned from the bath-house is greed, so he tries to offer her enormous handfuls of gold (the one gift that has never been turned down).
Again, Sen doesn’t accept it, and again No Face can’t understand this, especially in contrast to the other workers. When it’s demonstrated that simply giving gifts is valueless as a means of friendship, my impression is that he wants to smash the entire hollow world that he’s constructed around himself. And it’s the bath-house that suffers (he does manage to cough up, whole and unharmed, everyone he’s swallowed). His rampage at the bath-house is not the result of his monstrous nature; instead, it comes about because his desire for acceptance is only partially fulfilled—partially because he seems to be the center of attention, but this attention isn’t about him. We’ve seen similar sequences in other movies where the unpopular nerd is treated nicely by the cool kids, only to discover that they did so only because he just bought a cool car or has a winning lottery ticket or has a famous rock star hiding in his house. In other words, it’s not because of who they are but what they have. It’s only natural that the bitterness that results is much more than simple disappointment. You had everything you ever wanted, and it all turned out to be hollow.
Purged of the rage and greed (as well as all the physical stuff) he absorbed in the bath-house (“This place makes him crazy,” Sen observes), he returns to his usual form, meekly and humbly following Sen as she undertakes a difficult journey in order to save Haku’s life. And at the end of that journey, he’s the one who finds a home, a place where he’s accepted and his talents are appreciated.
If only all such monsters could find such a place. Probably the “monster” that comes closest to No Face is Boris Karloff’s version of the Frankenstein Monster. He’s another powerful being who’s not monstrous at all, he simply isn’t beautiful looking and he can’t communicate in erudite language, which is (ironically) the one thing that probably best hides a man’s nature from others. But I digress. I do that. Rather a lot. You’ve probably noted.
Of course, No Face has one advantage over Frankenstein’s Monster: he doesn’t look like a human being, so we cannot look at ourselves and compare him (unfavorably) to us. We are apples and oranges. Frankenstein’s Monster, on the other hand, was created specifically to look a lot like us, and has clearly fallen short of any ideal with which he can be compared. So, yes, it’s appearance in this case that determines standing among monsters. No Face, as the Other, can be seen more objectively than the Frankenstein’s Monster’s parody of humanity. Interestingly, the Baby in Spirited Away learns a similar lesson. Transformed into a mouse, he’s disappointed that his mother doesn’t recognize him—appearance, and not our true nature, has become the standard of judgment.
(Some might include Godzilla or King Kong in this misunderstood-monster company, but for me they’re disqualified because the destruction they cause is clearly the end of their actions, rather than a reaction to being disappointed by the world and themselves. The Hulk? Maybe. Ben Grimm? Definitely. Day of the Dead‘s Bub? Yes.)
Why do I like such monsters? Probably because I am such a monster. I have no idea what the social contract entails. I just make up something that seems plausible or, more likely, copy what I’ve seen others do on television. I’ve unwittingly caused pain because I didn’t know what to do, and I’ve also stood there not knowing how to respond when a response was clearly needed. Each and every time I feel like I’m just something odd hidden in a regular envelope. I’d sure like to find the place where I really belong. This doesn’t seem to be it.
I suspect a lot of people feel the same way. Like No Face, we’re not destructive because we’re monsters. It’s just that that is what monsters do, so we must be monsters when we are destructive.
I also seem to create such creatures. In my NaNoWriMo project, I had a monster. A destructive killing creature that could not be defeated, no matter how brave and determined my hero. But something changed my hand as I wrote, and I suddenly found myself with a No Face. He immediately became my favorite character, and story and world suddenly shaped themselves to accommodate his new nature. Except for the fact that he can’t talk, I would eagerly do another novel all about him.
Well (I say with a shrug), they say all art is autobiography and every painting is a self-portrait. Who am I to argue with them? I like monsters.