The Relationship between Japanese Theatre & Spirited Away

By Miranda Barrientos

When I watched Spirited Away for the first time, I was extremely curious and captivated by the character No-Face. The character seemed so familiar to me but I could not pinpoint why. I thought perhaps the character was an established figure in Japanese mythology, but my googling “origins of No-Face” was fruitless. All sources stated that No-Face was an original character created by Hayao Miyazaki.

I had hoped the Academy Museum exhibition on Miyazaki would provide deeper insight. While the exhibition offered a fascinating insight into the process of Miyazaki’s filmmaking, it did not provide the answers I sought. The exhibit failed to address the influence of other artists and art forms on Miyazaki’s works.

I recently learned of a theatrical stage adaptation of Spirited Away produced in Japan earlier this year with the support of Studio Studio Ghibli. As a fan of the film and a theatre artist, I was very intrigued. As I looked at production photos, I had many realizations. The stage adaption appeared to be reminiscent of Bunraku theatre. I also realized what had always eluded me about No-Face. The design and characteristics of No-Face borrow from Noh theatre.

Rewatching Spirited Away with these connections in mind I was able to identify how Miyazaki was inspired by and utilized traditional forms of Japanese theatre to aid his storytelling. Now we are seeing theatre take influence from Miyazaki, as the film has been adapted for the stage using Noh and Bunraku techniques.

Noh Theatre

In The Spirit of Noh filmmaker Edwin Lee, joins Udaka as he prepares for his next performance and reflects on the future of his art form in modern-day Japan.

Noh, or nō, is a form of traditional Japanese mask theatre that dates back to the fourteenth century (Brazell 497). Noh performances are a mixture of poetry, dance, and music that entwine supernatural elements and Buddhist philosophies. Unlike western theatre, Noh dramas do not focus on character development or plot. Instead, Noh dramas embody a feeling and are viewed as opportunities to “celebrate deities, poetry, longevity, fertility, or harmony; or exorcize external or internal ghosts and demons” (Brazell 497). The leading Shite actors wear masks that indicate character and emotion. Although the Shite is the central focus, they rarely recite dialogue and utilize primarily movement and their mask to tell the story while the chorus chants (Brazell 497). Noh theatre utilizes a unique stage that consists of a bridge, representative of the bridge between worlds, leading to a larger thrust stage and a small side stage (Brazell 497). Noh theatre continues to be practiced to this day in Japan and its influence has spread to other theatre artists worldwide as well as other art forms as we can see in Spirited Away. 

A traditional Noh Theatre mask
A close look at No-Face’s mask

The clearest influence of Noh theatre in Spirited Away can be observed through an examination of the character No-face. No-face’s neutral mask aesthetically and thematically resembles the masks utilized in Noh theatre. Giving No-Face a Shite-like appearance quickly and effectively establishes them as a supernatural force. Noriko Reider explains masks create inscrutable characters by making them “both more elusive and expressive” (20). Exploiting this duality which is a major factor of Noh, adds a level of intrigue by keeping the audience guessing what No-face’s goals and values are. This is enhanced by the fact that No-Face is mostly silent like Shite in Noh theatre in addition to being masked. Miyazaki uses Noh aesthetics is create the personality, or rather lack of personality, of No-Face.

Furthermore, Chihiro first sees No-Face when she crosses the bridge to the bathhouse with Haku. In Noh theatre, the Shite, who is typically a divine or supernatural being, uses the bridge built into the stage as a portal between worlds. It is the same case in Spirited Away, the bridge to the bathhouse serves as a passageway for spirits. We do not know where the spirits are coming from but this is their entryway into this realm. Therefore who acts as the film’s Shite, is first seen on this bridge. Using themes established by Noh Miyazaki was able to create a new complex yet familiar character in Japanese mythology.

Bunraku Theatre

Presented by The Japan Foundation, this min documentary explores Bunraku with the help of three performers, each representing one of the three parts of this puppet theatre.

Bunraku is a traditional form of Japanese puppet theatre that developed during the seventeenth century. The name Bunraku is derived ” from the name Uemura Bunrakuken, the founder of a troupe in Osaka around 1800″ (Gerstle 200). There are three elements to Bunraku, chanters, musicians, and puppets. One chanter narrates and voices the entire play and is accompanied by a shamisen player (Gerstle 200). The large and ornate puppets, manipulated by three people each, enact the play’s action. The unmasked lead puppeteer operates the puppet’s head and right arm and two asked secondary puppeteers operate the left arm and the legs (Gerstle 200). Structurally and thematically Bunraku takes inspiration from Noh and features cyclical stories with roots in “Buddhist and folk-religious heritage” (Gerstle 200). Today there is only one surviving professional troupe. They are based in Osaka, the birthplace of Bunraku, and frequently perform at Tokyo and Osaka National Theatres (Gerstle 200). Although Bunraku has dwindled in popularity, the art form continues to influence other forms of puppet theatre worldwide and Kabuki theatre. Furthermore, we can see the inspiration of Bunraku in both the stage and film versions of Spirited Away.

Bunraku (Puppets)
Hooded pupperties pefroming Bunraku theatre
No-Face in Spirited Away

Once again these influences are most evident when considering No-face. No-Face wears clothing similar to that of the hooded secondary puppeteers in Bunraku. Both don black shapeless cloaks and hide their faces. In Bunraku, this is done for puppeteers to erase themselves and become a vessel for the characters of the puppet. I believe this applies to No-Face as well. As we see in the film, No-Face does not take on any strong personality until they begin to eat the inhabitants of the bathhouse. Then No-Face takes on the attitude and values of the beings it has consumed. Like the puppeteers, No-Face is acting as a receptacle and amplifier of others, rather than as independent. Miyazaki combines the aesthetics of Noh and Banraku to create a character who is the perfect blank slate.

As we have established, Miyazaki draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including traditional forms of Japanese theatre, to create something new. We are now seeing the theatre world be inspired by Miyazaki. The stage adaptation of Spirited Away, which premiered at Tokyo’s Imperial Theatre in February 2022. directed by John Caird, acknowledges and leans into the film’s borrowing of Bunraku practices. To bring the non-human and supernatural that inhabit the world of Spirited Away to the stage this production is utilizing a puppet form of puppet theatre that seems to be a revival of Bunraku traditions. Just like in Bunraku, multiple puppeteers, dressed in neutrals to disappear, operate the larger-than-life puppets designed by renowned theatrical puppet designer and director, Toby Olie. The production also keeps the Noh and Bunraku-inspired look of No-Face. It is so interesting to see how theatre and animation can inspire each other.

I think many artists and their audiences, get too hung up on being original. Something I’ve learned studying theatre and pop culture is all the best artists steal. Art is created in response to the world around us, not in a vacuum. Therefore, art is always influenced by the work of others. Allowing oneself to be inspired and moved to create is what makes artists artists. Even artistic geniuses and auteurs like Hayao Miyazaki don’t start from scratch when creating. It is important to acknowledge that good artists and storytellers, like Miyazaki, draw inspiration from a variety of sources to create something new. It is what an artist has to say with their art that matters most, not doing something completely new. I hope going forward artists are more generous in acknowledging and crediting those who have inspired and informed their work. I’d love it if the Academy Museum exhibition Hayao Miyazaki would add a section dedicated to Miyazaki’s inspirational sources. Knowing this information just enhances the enjoyment and engagement of the audience. I appreciate Spirited Away much more now that I have found the connections between the film and traditional Japanese theatre. 

Work Cited

Gerstle, Andrew. “Bunraku.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, 1st ed., vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 200–01.

Reider, Noriko T. “Spirited Away: Film of the Fantastic and Evolving Japanese Folk Symbols.” Film Criticism, vol. 29, no. 3, 2005, pp. 4-27,79. ProQuest,

Brazell, Karen. “Nō (Noh).” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, 1st ed., vol. 2, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 947–48.