Anime fans search for the earliest example of what some consider a harbinger hairdo, but how did it get started?

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, which means it was a time to reflect on all that moms do for their children. However, if you’re a Twitter user who picked a name like @animetbh, odds are you’re still thinking about anime while you’re thinking about moms.

So in addition to wishing everyone a happy Mother’s Day, @animetbh also issued a warning, telling everyone that an anime mom who ties her hair in a loose braid or tail worn over the front of one shoulder is quite possibly marked for death.

Some of those moms are dead and buried by the time their associated series’ first installments begin, such as Trisha Elric (seen at the top left), mother of adventuring brothers Ed and Al from Fullmetal Alchemist. Attack on Titan protagonist Eren’s mom, Carla Yeagar (top center), doesn’t last much longer, getting scarfed down by a Titan in the anime’s first episode.

Fullmetal Alchemist precedes Attack on Titan by roughly 10 years, but some fans dug up photographic evidence they say shows this has been going on for several decades. One Twitter user theorized that the hospitalized, bedridden mother of Satsuki and Mei in Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro, released in 1988, is the earliest example.

Another, meanwhile, went all the way back to The Story of Perrine, which debuted on Japanese TV on January 1, 1978. Though largely unknown to English-speaking anime fans, The Story of Perrine Story was part of Nippon Animation’s respected World Masterpiece Theater series. An adaptation of French novel Nobody’s Girl (originally titled En Famille), the story centers on a teenage girl who moves to Paris with her sick mother, who eventually succumbs to her illness.

So why does this hairstyle seem to show up so often in character designs for mothers who’re destined to meet a tragic fate? Quite possibly because it can work as an effective symbol for either “adult woman” or “sick person.”

Being as reliant as it is on visuals to convey information, anime often reserves short haircuts for tomboys, which makes longer, fuller hair an easy way to create a womanly, maternal aura. Moreover, deceased/soon-to-be deceased anime moms are often portrayed as hardworking and supportive, which ensures that their loss carries emotional impact and acts as a catalyst for the protagonist to start the difficult process of growing up. Those moms don’t have time for hairstyles that are time-consuming or that get in the way of all their child-rearing endeavors (note that both Trisha and Carla are pictured wearing aprons), and so gathering everything in a bunch and flipping it in front of a shoulder is a practical choice.

Likewise, someone who’s dealing with a major illness likely lacks the time and energy to go through a lengthy hairstyling process every day, especially if she’s in the hospital. She’s probably not going to the hair salon for a trim very often either, and so once again, the low-maintenance hairstyle seen here makes sense.

In other words, there’s no deep Japanese cultural meaning behind the frequency with which the hairstyle shows up on dead anime moms. It is, however, a quick and relatively clear way to convey a significant amount of character information, and in a medium that allows pure aesthetic control, like anime does, any hairstyle could really be considered part of the costume. It’s also worth pointing out that this hairstyle doesn’t just show up on mothers, but on motherly yet still-childless types, such as Ranma 1/2’s nurturing big sister Kasumi.

The hairstyle’s death-dealing powers are by no means absolute, either. While the mom in Totoro is receiving treatment for a serious medical condition, she’s still very much alive at the end of the movie, and the rumors of her emotional closeness with her daughters being an indicator that one or all of them are dead have been debunked by Studio Ghibli itself.

In conclusion, it’s not so much that anime gives this hairstyle to moms who die. Japanese artists are exceptionally fond of giving this hairstyle to moms in general. Anime, having so many adventure stories starring teenaged heroes, needs to give those characters loose parental supervision to allow such adventures to get started, and so when you combine the hairstyle’s prevalence among anime moms with the medium’s high maternal mortality rate, the two are bound to overlap pretty often.

Source: Jin, Twitter/@animetbh

Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’d like to point out that Maison Ikkoku’s Kyoko Otonashi and Idol Defense Force Hummingbird’s Kanna Toreishi also regularly sport this hairstyle.