Anime is the land of crazy hair. Whether it’s the laughably outlandish hair of Yu-Gi-Oh!‘s protagonist or the outrageously long hair sported by many female characters, most anime are chock full of plainly unrealistic hair. But what is anime hair’s meaning?
What is anime hair?
“Anime hair” is, admitted, a fairly blunt term used to describe the often outlandish hairstyles found in anime and manga. From Shōnen spikes to the Sailors’ characteristic hairstyles, haircuts and hairstyles are an important element of anime’s visual language.
Anime hair’s origin is somewhat obscure. In part, it comes from the visual style of anime. Because the art style typically avoids fine details, hair comes out as a large, uniform chunk. It also serves an important purpose. Just like characters in American animated series often wear a uniform that helps fans identify them, anime characters are frequently identified, in part, by the hair. A wide array of improbable hairstyles are further differentiated by a vast array of colors unseen in nature.
What’s the point of anime hair? It’s part of the visual language of anime, and as such conveys meaning. But it’s also a cheap and easy shortcut for identifying characters that might have approximately the same face. There are only so many anime faces you can have, and hair represents an easy way to distinguish between characters. It’s also easy to draw, helping animators make quick work of scenes that might have a number of characters. Without their distinctive hair styles, you might have a hard time differentiating the heroes of your favorite series.
Interesting, the degree of “reality” in hairstyles can sometimes indicate how serious an anime is. If characters have impossible hair styles and unreal hair colors, you might expect a more outlandish plot. If characters all have believable hairstyles with brown and black colors dominating, the art style might be supporting a more mature narrative.
Anime Hair’s Meanings
If you’re an anime devotee, you’ll see the same hairstyles crop up over and over again, but with minor tweaks. Let’s consider some of the most popular.
Easy to draw, the ponytail is the simplest female hairstyle. Like its real-life counterpart, the standard features hair pulled back along the head to the back, where it hangs lose. As the most common hairstyle, it often indicates modern normality, if it indicates anything at all. There’s also a huge array of ponytail subtypes.
A single, long braid or side plait often indicates a mature, motherly character. She might be our young protagonists mother, or just take care of our main character in a time of need.
Twintails, or dual ponytails, are more commonly called “pigtails” in the West. This style, with a ponytail on either side of the head, represents the same childishness that it does in Western visual media. Characters with twin tails might be immature, foolish or childish. They could be either charming or obnoxious, but they probably don’t know how to deal with mature or emotionally difficult situations. This hair style is often seen in tsundere characters.
And sometimes it gets wild, with outrageously large, curled twintails called “drill hair” or mega twintails. This overlaps visually with ojou ringlets, which represent regal nature, but they don’t have the same meaning. Typically, the hair is at least as large as the character’s head. They’re sort of halfway between childish pigtails and regal ringlets.
Ponytails are also fairly popular for male characters, especially in historical anime. If a male character has a short ponytail at the nape of the neck, they might be Chinese. If they have a high ponytail, like a samurai, they have great instincts for battle.
The most outrageous anime hair comes from Yu-Gi-Oh!. But the second most outrageous hair is Shōnen hair, found (unsurprisingly) in Shōnen anime and manga. These series are fighting-heavy, focusing on epic martial arts, tournaments, action and adventure. These hairstyles are the spiky, unreal male hairstyles that would take hours to create in real life. Often created solely to look bad ass, you’ll find these haircuts dominating adventure and action anime and manga protagonists. It’s the most anime of anime hair, spiky and aggressive, just like the protagonist.
Literally “princess cut,” the hime cut represents traditional, dignified, quiet ideals of Japanese femininity. It features straight bangs across the forehead trimmed just above the eyes and long, straight hair down the back. In real life, this hairstyle reaches back to pre-feudal Japan, dating to the Heian period of about 1000 CE. Characters with this hair style with be demure and docile, valuing the traditional ways to doing things. They’ll be modest, graceful and elegant, often treated like an ojou, or wealthy, high-class young lady.
Characters with ojou ringlets are high class dames. An ojou (literally “young lady”) is a wealthy, high class young woman, and this hairstyle is the visual representation of that social class. They might be actual royalty, or maybe just the cream of the social crop. Sometimes ojou hair is used ironically, to indicate a character believes themselves to be high class even if they’re not. Look for two prominently curled locks on either side of the face, normally in front of the ear but sometimes behind.
Identified by a single, straight forelock sticking up from the character’s head, ahoge hair literally means “idiot hair.” It’s used to denote characters that are stupid, naive, or maybe just oddballs. They’re especially bumbling in romantic or social situations.
Common with female heroines, odango hair (“ox horn,” in Chinese) features two buns worn at about a 45 degree angle from the top of the head. Sometimes, you’ll see twin tails coming from the buns, but other times the buns will be unadorned. It’s commonly associated with Chinese characters, and is sometimes even used as a racial stereotype. However, the term can also be used loosely by Japanese to describe any bun-based hairstyle.
Ultra-long hair is outrageously, unbelievable long, running down to the ankles or longer. In real life, hair like this is literally impossible to grow, since your hair natural stops growing at a terminal length determined by your genetics. In anime, it blows dramatically around characters, who presumably use half a bottle of shampoo every shower to maintain it. Rapunzel-haired women are often beauties, lusted after by their male counterparts. When used for men, ultra-long hair signifies untamed, primal power.
Hair antennae are just what they sound like: two locks of hair that stick up from the character’s forehead. It’s typically used to represent someone a little dumber than average, but also sweet and enthusiastic. It’s like more likable idiot hair. Also used as a stylistic tool to differentiate characters.
When female characters have short hair, they’re often tomboys. They’ll likely adopt the traditionally male role of action-based problem solving, and might be skilled mechanics, scientists or fighters. In men, this is a more “standard” hairstyle that might be used to indicate a relatively normal character.
The short afro is frequently used to indicate gangsters. Its popularity with Japanese Yakuza in the 1980s led to this association, which carries on in anime.
Anime Hair Color Meaning
If anime hair’s meaning is so rich an complex, surely the same can be said for hair color! Well, kind of. While we might make some broad psychological associations with anime hair colors, it’s not always intended to tell us something about a character. The color is frequently not even intended literally. After all, the strangest part of some anime might be how many otherwise-serious people have blue and purple hair. It’s a shortcut to identifying a character that’s sometimes use to support characterization, but the connection between hair color and character isn’t as clear as the connection between hairstyle and character.
- Black and brown hair: this natural hair color is found in realistic or serious anime.
- Yellow: used on female main characters to indicate their importance and uniqueness. Can also signify chosen ones or a clumsy foreigner.
- Red: just as in Western media, redheads are wild, easily roused to passionate emotion. They might be physically combative, emotional irrational, or both.
- Blue: ethereal, mysterious, and maybe slightly magical. The lighter the blue, the more distant from the every day world.
- Pink: young, childish, naive and moe. Was once rare, now common.
- Purple: if dark purple, it might indicate high social standing. If bright purple, think “JRPG princess.”
- Green: fairly rare these days, but once used to indicate the comedic, overly-excitable “genki girl” archetype.
Anime hair is a useful way to tell similar-looking characters apart, and sometimes that’s the extent of its utility. But other times, a character’s deeper nature is revealed by their hairstyle and, less reliably, their hair color.