Hair Color

Manga hair color

Back when artists were just starting to draw what we would consider "manga" today, they only had three options for hair color: black, white and grey. It would seem that, when trying to draw Japanese characters, only black could be used, but shoujo manga artists started to leave the hair of their Japanese characters un-inked. Doing this allowed the reader to distinguish between characters easily, and it also helped balance the page and make it more artistic. However, the Japanese characters were still presented as looking traditionally Japanese, and the reader accepted them as Japanese. Even though a character may have beautiful, wavy, seemingly blonde hair, the manga reader knows that in reality, the character's hair is beautiful, wavy and black - even though the character might be directly portrayed otherwise. "In recent years," writes Frederick Schodt in Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, "on the covers and initial color pages of the magazines, what can only be Japanese girls are often drawn with distinctly blonde hair and blue eyes." For a westerner this can lead to some odd situations. In the section from Tomoko Taniguchi's Aquarium below, Suzuki tells Koko that he went to church when he was young because seeing a foreigner was such a novel experience. Yet Koko, with her apparently blonde and wavy hair, seems just as Western as the priest must have been!

Koko from Tomoko Taniguchi's Aquarium is a Japanese student.
Suzuki talks to Koko about seeing the foreign priest in his childhood.

Anime hair color

Hair color in anime is a different beast altogether. Even traditionally Japanese anime characters can have hair of any color, even colors that don't traditionally appear on any real human! Like with manga, assigning different hair colors to different characters allows the viewer to recognize which character is which. Hair color has also traditionally been used to indicate some part of the character's personality. A character who is feisty and hotheaded may be given red hair to emphasize these aspects of his or her personality; red hair can also indicate spirit possession, as it does with Ranma's female form. Many male main-characters will have black hair to emphasize their traditional nature, distinguishing them from their friends who have many colors of hair; Tenchi, Ranma and Ash are good examples of this. Many blondes are either vain and conniving or completely airheaded. Serena from Sailor Moon would reflect the air-headed part of this, while Nanami from Revolutionary Girl Utena is completely spoiled and whiny. Characters with special powers or origins may have the oddest hair colors of all to reflect their extraordinary nature. Many of the women in Tenchi Muyo are powerful aliens; it would be odd for Ryoko, a bizarre and powerful character, to have hair like that of any real woman on Earth!

Ranma is normally a black-haired male; in his enchanted female form, his hair is bright red.
Thousands of young Pokemon trainers can identify with Ash.
   Serena shows off her playful and ditzy side.    Nanami is a very scheming, controlling character.    Ryoko's oddly colored hair reflects her supernatural nature.

It must be emphasized that the color of a character's hair doesn't necessarily mean that they will always behave like other characters with the same color of hair, or that they won't have completely contradictory aspects of their personality. Assigning Touga from Revolutionary Girl Utena the same personality as Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion would be a very simplistic mistake, even though they both have long, bright red hair. Hair color is not an accurate reflection of the person - it just indicates what color the creator thought best suited the character. Also, as the general cliches regarding hair color have settled and become more common, many anime creators have played with the sterotypes, using them to confuse and surprise viewers. For example, Tomoyo from Card Captor Sakura would seem to be a very traditional character; her hair is long and black, and she is unfailingly proper and polite. It would seem that there is nothing about her that would keep her from being a model young Japanese lady. However, she is in love with her friend Sakura - a very non-traditional feeling!

Touga from Utena is a very cold, calculating character...
...while Askua from Neon Genesis Evangelion is a very emotional, outgoing character.
   Tomoyo from Card Captor Sakura seems very traditional, but has a few very unexpected qualities.

There is no one set of rules for each color of hair, despite the valiant efforts of many fans to categorize them. Yet though there are no set meanings for each color of hair, it does have symbolic value and should be recognized as such.

-Liana Sharer Click to learn more about Liana


Frederik L. Schodt, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, Kodansha America, NY, NY 1983
Gilles Poitras, The Anime Companion, Stone Bridge Press, Berkley, CA 1999

Ranma 1/2
Sailor Moon
Revolutionary Girl Utena
Tenchi Muyo
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Card Captor Sakura

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The University of Michigan Japanese Animation Group
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