ByAllen-Michael Harber, writer at
Quiet Down, I Can't Hear The Subtitles
Allen-Michael Harber

Hayao Miyazaki is famed for his use of cinematic symbolism. Sometimes this can be pretty on the nose, such as the environmentalist themes seen in Princess Mononoke, or sometimes it can be more subtle, like his use of food in film.

also uses hair as symbolism to help the audience understand a character's personality and demeanor. Strong female characters like Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and San from Princess Mononoke sport a short hairdo that expresses their strong will and independence. Meanwhile, less-confident characters such as Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle have longer hair, which symbolizes being closed off from the rest of the world. But Miyazaki's hair styling goes much deeper than this.

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Miyazaki also uses locks to help express the thoughts and feelings of characters. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, after the titular character's father is killed, her hair spikes up as she gets angry.

In , when Chihiro is confronted with the awful odor of a stink spirit she must wash, her hair also stands on end.

Even with all this, there is one more way Miyazaki uses hair as symbolism, and that is the trimming of tresses or removal of hair altogether. In many of his movies, the main character experiences a revelation or a change that changes how they see themselves or the world, and in some cases it is the shearing of one's gorgeous mane that symbolizes this change.

Sheeta —Castle In The Sky

At a young age Sheeta lost her parents, but continued to live peacefully on a farm by herself. That is, until she is kidnapped by secret government agents in an attempt to locate , an ancient floating city. After escaping and befriending a local boy, it is revealed she is a descendant of those who once lived in the sky. Throughout the movie she is manipulated by different factions who each have a stake in wanting to reach the floating city. The government wants to weaponize it, while a band of sky pirates want to steal its treasure.

Sheeta's hair is tied back into pigtails, which represent her being closed off from the world. The only thing she really knows is the farm and the stories her mother told her about the sky. After she stands up to the Colonel Muska, he shoots off her pigtails. It is here that her character arc comes full circle as Sheeta is done being threatened and manipulated. She gains the confidence to stand up for herself and confront her fears.

Sophie —Howl's Moving Castle

Sophie is a plain girl who works in a hat shop. She doesn't see herself as a great beauty and lacks self-confidence, unlike her sisters. Her journey begins when she is transformed into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste and runs away from home. After a misunderstanding, she becomes the cleaning lady for the wizard Howl inside his moving castle.

Sophie's ponytail symbolizes her lack of confidence. She's constricted and afraid. Because she was turned old by the witch, Sophie gains a new perspective and eventually realizes that she deeply loves Howl.

During the film's climax, Sophie and her new friends must rescue the wizard. However, the fire demon who controls the castle cannot perform without a powerful fuel. Sophie gives him her ponytail, which provides the flame they need. By doing this she finally realizes that Howl needs her and gains the confidence to face her insecurities head-on. She is no longer constricted by her own self-doubt.

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Ashitaka — Princess Mononoke

While Sheeta and Sophie lose their long locks during the climax of their stories, Ashitaka's transformation happens at the very beginning of his. His village is attacked by a boar demon and he is forced to slay the beast to protect his people. During the ensuing battle, he is touched by the demon and cursed with only a short amount of time to live. With what little time he has left, he is forced to leave his village and discover what created the demon. The symbolism behind the cutting of Ashitaka's hair is the cutting of the ties with the village.

Looking at it from another point of view, when his hair is originally up it is neat and orderly, representing his stable life up until that point. After cutting it off, his hair is messy and chaotic, much like what had just transpired.

With Sophie and Sheeta, their haircuts represent a change in perspective. They no longer feel burdened and are finally able to confront their feelings. While this represents the end of their journey, Ashitaka's has only begun. His transformation has the opposite effect as his future is uncertain. For each of these character's their way of life has been interrupted, and each of their journeys to discovery either begins or ends with the chopping of a few inches.

What do you think? Is Miyazaki's symbolism a cut above the rest?


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