Creator of Sword Art Online asks fans to answer a question that’s often brushed aside in the anime world, with some surprising results.

One of the most distinctive visual aspects of anime is the wide array of hair colors characters have. Given that Japan is a country where the indigenous population has naturally black, or on rare occasions dark brown, hair, newcomers to the medium are often shocked to see how many on-screen stars of Japanese animation have heads of hair in vivid shades of blue, green, purple, or pink.

Oddly enough, though, all those wild hair colors are also something that continuing anime fans quickly get desensitized to, on account of how widespread they are in Japanese character design. But Reki Kawahara, light novel author and creator of the Sword Art Online anime franchise, recently started an online debate when he asked fans to once again think about what’s going on with anime characters’ hair.

“This is sort of out of the blue, but you know how in light novels, manga, anime, and video games there are characters with hair that’s pink or sky blue? I’ve always thought those characters have black, brown, or at most blond hair, and are just portrayed as having different hair colors as a form of artistic expression, not because they’ve dyed their hair or that their hair is naturally that [unusual] color.”

So in Kawahara’s mind, at least up until his tweet, all those anime characters don’t really have blue/pink/etc. hair within the worlds that their stories are taking place. However, the author said he had his belief challenged recently when he was reading a manga in which one character referred to another as “The girl with the pink hair,” implying that within that manga’s world, the girl’s hair really is pastel. That got Kawahara’s mind churning, as he went on to tweet “If she has naturally pink hair, then she’s living in a parallel universe, and if she’s dying her hair pink, she’s got a punk-rocker thing going on.”

After spending an entire day trying to wrap his head around this question, Kawahara eventually decided to ask his Twitter followers what they think, with a four-choice poll, specifically asking about characters who are supposed to be living in the real world:

The poll garnered 22,277 responses, with the final results being
● The characters’ hair is naturally that color (64.6 percent of responses)
● The characters dyed their hair that color (6.9 percent)
● The characters have hair that’s actually black or brown, but shown as pink/etc. for artistic purposes (25.7 percent)
● Other (3 percent)

Nearly one in four respondents saying that they interpret the characters’ hair as being actually black or brown is pretty surprising. Sure, it’s not too hard to see a deep blue or purple as a stand-in for black hair, since the non-black shade makes it easier to add texture and movement to hand-drawn art than with pure black. But it’s a lot harder to imagine how sky blue or pink are supposed to be interpretive substitutes for any naturally occurring hair color, especially with Japanese characters.

As for the “other” category, one commenter said that for him, it depends on the character in question. “If a quiet, reserved girl has pink hair, I take that as her natural color, but if it’s a more energetic and extroverted character, then I think there’s a chance she dyed it.”

In the end, there’s no definitive, industry-wide answer for how anime hair colors are supposed to be interpreted. The practice got its start in the manga industry, since Japanese comics are routinely drawn in black and white and leaving certain characters’ hair uninked, or inked in a lighter shade, was an easy way to make them stand out. Even certain manga creators haven’t been particularly concerned with the exact color of their characters’ hair, with Urusei Yatsura artist Rumiko Takahashi depicting series star Lum with a variety of colors until character designer Akemi Takada decided on her now standardized greed for the anime adaptation.

So really, maybe the best thing to do is just to enjoy the anime aesthetic for how it looks, without worrying too much about the exact implications of the design choices, like how big contact lenses would have to be.

Source: Twitter/@kunori via Jin
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert image: Pakutaso 
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Follow Casey on Twitter, where Valis II was the first time he was conscious of a video game character having blue hair.