The Hair Makes the Character

The manga art style is known for being highly stylized and unique. One could discuss for hours about any number of drawing techniques that is used by this highly inventive medium. However one physical feature stands above the rest, being the most stylized and detailed in both manga and anime characters alike, that being the crazily unique hair styles.

Manga/anime hair can come in literally any shape, color, or size, it can be a character’s defining feature and at the same time, garner no attention whatsoever from the other characters; no matter how bizarre. With manga and anime becoming increasingly popular outside of Japan, a single question is always asked by both fans and non-fans alike: Why is that character’s hair so crazy?

Note: this is NOT bed head.
Note: this is not bedhead.

There have been many discussions and theories into why Japan has gone to such extremes in depicting these characters as having hair as tall as skyscrapers and as colorful as Mardi Gras costumes. But the answer is a lot more simple than you might of imagined. Because manga is primarily printed in black and white format this leaves very little distinction between characters. If you consider the standard tropes that nearly every manga/anime character have– doey-eyes, small mouth, pointed chin, etc., then even the main character them self becomes indistinguishable from the dozens upon dozens of side, support and background characters. So the easiest solution was to highlight importance through hair, this allows characters to become easily recognized even through silhouette alone.

However one should not be satisfied with such an ordinary answer. There is still clearly some more profound reasoning behind certain depictions of hair in manga/anime. Therefore we should further speculate into why the artist has chosen to give characters particular colors and styles.

Hair Color

Hair color in manga/anime is usually depicted as bright and vibrant, usually being the very first thing you notice. There are practical reasons for this, with colored pages being a special treat in most mangas there is a need to grab the consumers attention right from the get go. However this still does not answer why the artist has chosen to display some characters’ hair as blue, green, or pink.

Or all three.

An interesting article I stumbled upon while researching, suggests that a manga/anime character’s personality is shown clearest through their hair color. The author proposes that manga artists both enhance and conceptualize a character’s personality through their hair color, by using the inherent meanings the colors have been associated with in everyday life. For instance characters with white hair were said to represent purity, but not in the sense of innocence, rather as being so devoid of contamination that they’re practically inhuman. This is of course entirely speculation and does not apply to every character, however there is certainly some valid interpretations in this argument.

Hair Style

As I have mentioned before the primary reason behind certain hair styles in manga are to give a character significance. This is done through many complicated forms that can be various shapes and sizes; from exaggerated buns, to insanely long dreads and even takes already odd hair styles like the pompadour to new levels of weirdness.

The character himself has admitted that it takes a long time to set.

Aside from the reasons already given above, there is really not too much room for speculation. However one type of hair style, or rather a trait, is very worthy of analysis due to its long running tradition, dating even as far back as 1953 in some of Osamu Tezuka’s works. I am referring to the “ahoge”, literally meaning stupid hair. The ahoge is typically a curled lock of hair on the top of the character’s head; basically like a cowlick. The ahoge can come in various shapes and sizes and even sometimes appears to be alive; acting as if it were a mood indicator for the character, such as wagging when they are extremely happy or drooping when depressed.

Ahoges have often been used to depict a carefree character, who are also usually clumsy, forgetful and even just plain stupid. However this seems to be changing in recent trends, with more serious and capable characters even being portrayed with ahoges; simply because it looks cute. It is usually depicted on girls, however it is not rare nor even that uncommon to see them on boys.

So there are many other theories to be made on the crazy hair phenomenon of manga/anime and I invite you to give your own thoughts on the subject. However I will note that I have purposefully left out the simplest answer till now: Just why not? It’s crazy, its unnatural and its unreal, but that is exactly why were reading these works to begin with.

References and image credits:

  • featured image from Dragon Ball Z by Akira Toriyama
  • hansode shiranui Tumblr for ahoge gif
  • Yu-Gi-Oh by Kazuki Takashi
  • Toriko by Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro
  • Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi
  • Gosick by Kazuki Sakuraba and Hinata Takeda

  2 comments for “The Hair Makes the Character

  1. Mary
    April 4, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    I think you make an interesting point in that the manga creators have to be inventive in order to catch consumer attention as well as to differentiate between main characters and lesser ones. However I do think that the patterns with hair can extend into beauty in general. I have often found that there seems to be no middle-ground between an “ugly” character and a “beautiful” one in comics. “Ugly” characters tend to be portrayed as more heavy-set, with facial blemishes, smaller eyes or glasses. This is most noticeable in those mangas that take an “ugly” character, typically a girl with lank hair and eyes hidden behind glasses. With a little make-up, a cute hair do, and a removal of the glasses, voila!, she’s transformed into a sudden beauty. On the other hand, “ugly” characters also tend to be bad characters or a bully, so their personality or moral standing sometimes can also be read in their outward appearance, which tends to be more noticeable if it is static. Their hair tends to be completely unremarkable, and often times it’s a bowl cut of some sort in black with no other shading. This is probably in reflection to society’s emphasis on a certain type of beauty, and a study comparing manga and Western comics would probably be revealing of what standards of beauty are hailed in different parts of the world, which I think particularly interesting when looking at the crazy hairstyles.

    • Mamoru Fuun
      April 4, 2013 at 8:43 pm

      I did not consider the differences between good and bad characters hair, so you bring up an interesting point. I greatly agree with the stereotypical bowl cut school bully who is usually the vain of the main character or some other supporting character’s existence. However I don’t think the beauty factor is all encompassing even with the baddies. In most manga and animes I’ve seen now I believe we are at a point where the good guys and bad guys are basically the same level of attractiveness. Note that of course things such as appearance are subjective, I will think some people are prettier than others and so will you. However the bad guys that are still portrayed as ugly really seem to be just these minor or one time villains that frankly don’t add much to the story after their first portrayals. Their lacking of distinguishing features do enhance this idea making them less memorable, so their hair probably won’t get to insane; excluding the pompadour biker gangs.

      These beautiful baddies however tend to have very stylized hair with much detail, girl villains especially; typically I would say the styles aren’t too crazy but hair color is still a wild card. So if they are a pivotal antagonist then I think they still can be interpreted by hair alone just as much as the protagonists.

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