Why Is It Such A Big Deal When Anime Characters Cut Their Hair?

by Justin Sevakis,

Darrel asked:

It seems like a very common theme in anime where a character cuts her hair to signify moving on from something. This is a popular theme in the Monogatari series and was also recently shown in Gun Gale Online. Is it a big deal to change your hair style in Japan?

This is one of those things that's mostly done for dramatic, symbolic effect in movies and anime. It's useful visual symbolism, looks dramatic, and makes for great storytelling, even if it doesn't come up often in real life.

The meaning comes from the Edo period, when samurai would cut off their top-knot (or chonmage) as a way of stepping down from their position. The hair chopping was greatly symbolic: that top-knot was originally there to support a helmet, but eventually it became a status symbol, and cutting it off signaled the end of that era of their life. After that, they would no longer enjoy a higher social status. This happened a lot during the Meiji Restoration, since the government was now paying samurai a rank-based stipend that many couldn't live on. Stepping away from their title was the only way they could get another job.

Today, the only time this tradition comes up is with sumo wrestlers, who still wear the samurai-style top-knot, and cut it off ceremonially when a player retires.

Since most people with long hair in Japan are women, the cutting of hair has taken on an additional meaning. Long hair is seen as cute, and long black hair is a popular aesthetic (which made it a particularly potent tool for horror films in recent years). In the Heian period (794 to 1185), ludicrously long, thick hair was particularly prized, and courtesans of the day grew it out so long it would drag on the ground. Men at the time were positively obsessed, and the long hair fetish continues to this day. Many point to the enduring popularity of the book The Tale of Genji for keeping the tradition fresh. (Genji famously would not allow his wife to ceremonially cut her hair at one point in the book.)

Many women today maintain long hair when they're single, and then cut it shorter when they have kids, due to its impracticality. So in a way, that cutting of hair is a ceremony that mirrors that of an Edo period Samurai: an end to an era of someone's life, and the beginning of another. It's a grand gesture that is really only noticed when people are looking for symbolism.

Of course, people cut their hair off all the time, and if they're known for having long hair, cutting it short is a jarring change for everyone that knows them. A friend or co-worker might remark, "wow, are you quitting your job or something?" joking that they were making a grand gesture by getting a haircut. But alas, in real life, a haircut is, in fact, usually just a haircut.


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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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