I continue on my quest to make The New Leaf Journal one of the internet’s leading resources on hair color analysis in Japanese anime, manga, light novels, and games (see articles on the subject). My interest in the subject was prompted in part by reading stories reporting about Japanese schools wherein students with naturally brown hair were required to dye their hair black in order to come into compliance with dress codes that promoted uniformity notwithstanding that those same codes prohibited hair dying.
A new anime series called Ippon Again, which aired for 13 episodes from January 9, 2023 through March 4, 2023, tackled Japanese high school dress code regulations over hair color, and the effect these regulations can have on Japanese students with naturally brown hair, and it did so in the most direct way I have come across in fiction. Episode three included a student with naturally brown hair who is accused of dying her hair. A later episode highlighted another character who is dying her hair brown and what she does to avoid scrutiny from the school’s most strident disciplinarian. Below, I examine brown hair in Ippon Again’s Aoba West high school.
Spoiler Note: I only discuss two scenes from the show in detail. Neither has to do with the main plot which focuses on the girls’ judo team. However, one could argue that my article does indirectly includes spoilers about two of the five main characters – but I will take the view that neither spoiler should come as any surprise to anyone who watches the beginning and ending songs.
Images Note: I clipped all screenshots in this article from HiDive, which is streaming the series. It is not possible to turn off subtitles, so all images contain the subtitles that appear on the official English-language release on HiDive. I applied upscaling to the images before compressing them to improve their quality and reduce their size for publication
This article will focus only on hair color in Ippon Again! However, a brief introduction of the series is still in order.
Ippon Again! follows a high school girls’ judo team at a school called Aoba West. The team begins with three members, Michi Sonada (the main protagonist), Sanae Takigawa, and Towa Hiura. The team picks up two additional members, Anna Nagumo and Tsumugi Himeno, in later episodes. The thirteen episodes highlight the first two tournaments that the high school judo team participates in various non-tournament episodes serve to develop the main cast. The series has a pleasant, laid back tone and is largely optimistic.
I found Ippon Again! decent on the whole, but ultimately unmemorable. The cast is pleasant and they act their age without being annoying (granting Michi and Anna push their luck on a few occasions). It avoids some annoying sports anime tropes. One point I appreciated is that it is a girls sports anime that actually focuses on girls engaging in sports rather than being mired in some existential conflict with the corresponding boys club or on endless reminders that some of their teachers do not care about the girls sports team. While not unprecedented, more than one girls sports anime has failed to consider that the a show about girls sports can really just be about girls sports. But while Ippon Again! avoided some pitfalls, it fell into others – such as a passion for long flashbacks, including back-stores of girls on opposing judo teams in the two tournaments (this is particularly overdone in the second tournament arc). I suppose some of the flashbacks may pay off if there is a second season, but they did not do this season’s pacing any favors.
The two characters with brown hair are Anna and Tsumugi, the fourth and fifth additions to the judo club. Anna begins the series as a member of Aoba West’s kendo club, and she is talented enough to be competitive on a national level. However, what she really wants is to spend her high school days with her long-time best friend, Michi, so she switches from kendo to judo at the series’ half-way point. Tsumugi is a third-year student (senior) had been a member of the school’s judo club before quitting when she found herself the only remaining member. She rejoins the newly-formed kendo club (note the other four members are first-year students) in the second half of the series so she could complete in one final tournament before graduating.
Ippon Again! has a real-world high school setting. Just as in two series that I examined for hair color issues – in My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU! (see article on Iroha Isshiki’s naturally brown hair) and Kimi ni Todoke – there are no supernatural elements. Some series with real-world settings nevertheless depict characters with unnatural hair colors. See, for example, Bocchi the Rock! and Kaguya-sama: Love is War in my 2022 anime review article. However, nearly all of the Japanese characters in Ippon Again! have black hair as is typical of most Japanese people. That fact, in and of itself, makes it more likely that Japanese characters with non-black hair are being depicted in that way for a reason.
Anna Nagumo stands out in her first appearances in Ippon Again! with her chestnut brown hair and distinctive face. Her hair passes without comment in her numerous appearances in the first two episodes of the series. However, it comes up in a distressing way in the third episode.
The scene in question in episode three features three of the girls from the main judo team – Michi, Anna, and Sanae – attending their regular physical education class. The gym instructor, Gondo, a large, very muscular bald man, is passionate about exercise and perhaps a little bit over-exuberant in instilling discipline in his charges. Gondo requires Michi, Anna, and Sanae to do a significant number of push ups for not taking their physical education seriously. The girls draw the gym Gondo’s attention again when Anna and Michi goof off while doing push ups, and he lectures them that exercise should nurture their body and spirit. While delivering this lecture, Gondo notes that the hair of one of the three girls is not like the others…
Anna is taken aback and struggles to put words together. Gondo assumed that Anna is dyeing her hair and directs her to show up with black hair the next day.
Anna is too flustered and intimidated to speak in her own defense, but her long-time friend Michi intervenes.
Michi informs Gondo that Anna’s hair is naturally brown and has been that way since she was in elementary school. Michi, who has a tendency to talk and talk, went on to tells Gondo that she is jealous of Anna’s hair, especially of its anti-bedhead properties.
Perhaps not persuaded that Gondo has been convinced, Michi throws in that Anna’s hair suits her.
The animators did a very effective job of depicting Anna showing her gratitude to Michi.
Gondo leans in to examine Anna’s hair closely, but it appears that he is convinced by Michi’s explanation of the situation. The next stage of their conversation features Michi explaining that she is a member of the judo club, and Gondo stating that he was under the impression that the judo club had disbanded. The scene is punctuated when the woman who turns out to be the judo club advisor (Michi mistakenly thought it was Gondo), Natsume Shino, performs a judo take-down of Gondo. Shiho apologizes to Gondo for taking him off his feet but tells him that he was scaring the girls and needs to remember to mind their personal space.
Two conversations ensue. Shino, talking to Michi and Sanae, informs them that she is the judo advisor but scolds them for having been practicing on mats outside the day before (Shino is a stickler for safety). Meanwhile, in the background, we see Gondo apologizing profusely to an uncomfortable looking Anna, telling her that he understands hair is a sensitive subject.
This was an excellent scene, and to the best of my recollection, the first anime scene I have seen where the matter of a Japanese girl with naturally brown hair is addressed in the context of a school’s dress and grooming code. As a threshold matter, I note that Gondo’s initial assumption about Anna tells us two things about Anna and Michi. Firstly, while Anna’s facial features do stand out a bit in the cast, it is clear from Gondo’s assumptions that she is Japanese (if she were foreign, he may not have jumped to conclusions about her hair color). A second point is that Michi, who is drawn with very dark brown hair, likely has black hair in reality since Gondo did not comment on it (I note she appears to have more clearly black hair on the manga covers).
The scene is effective because of how it conveys the feelings of the characters in a humane way. Prior to this scene, Anna comes off as energetic, confident, assertive, and more than a bit haughty with her long-time best friend, Michi. Anna has every reason to be confident. At this stage of the show, she is a high level high school kendo practitioner who also gets high marks in class (conversely, Michi is a decent judoka and a poor student). Anna is still her normal self in the immediate lead-up to her hair being called into question. She responds with exasperation when Gondo makes her do push ups for having held back while they were running to run with Michi and messes with Michi while they are doing push ups.
Knowing how Anna usually behaves creates a sharp contrast wit how she responds to the physically imposing Gondo falsely accusing her of dyeing her hair. Anna visibly wilts under Gondo’s pressure while stammering, and had Michi not intervened, Anna would have likely let Gondo walk away without saying anything in her own defense. As Shino correctly notes, Gondo was (perhaps unintentionally) making the girls physically uncomfortable with his manner. However, the way Anna became discombobulated when Gondo brought up her hair showed us, without explicitly telling us, that this is a sensitive issue for her. That second point is further underscored by how Anna clings to Michi in gratitude while covering up her face after Michi stands up for her.
The series could have easily left it at that, but it made a small effort to rehabilitate Gondo as well. Gondo clearly listened to what Michi told him about Anna’s hair, and although he presumes to closely examine Anna’s scalp, he seemed to come to the conclusion that Michi was telling the truth. After concluding that Anna’s hair was naturally brown, he did not attempt to press the issue further – which stands in contrast to one unfortunate real-world Japanese school story involving naturally brown hair which I covered on site. After Gondo recovered from being tossed by Shino and considered Shino’s lecture about how he was scaring the girls, he, to his credit, offered a genuine apology to Anna and explained that he understood that hair is a sensitive issue for her and that he should not have jumped to conclusions. In the end, we come away with the impression that Gondo’s heart as a teacher is in the right place, but he has a tendency to lose his head and overstep boundaries. Shino offers another subtle clue about Gondo’s problem with the girls when she commends Gondo for his work as coach of the school’s very successful rugby team. Shino implies that the large, loud, and very physically imposing Gondo needs to mind physical space when dealing with young women in a way that he may not need to do when sternly instructing the young men he leads on the rugby team. Gondo’s immediate apology to Anna offers some hope that he learned from the experience.
No more information on Anna’s brown hair
The series never directly addresses Anna’s brown hair again. We briefly see Anna’s mother and father in a later episode. Both parents have what appear to be dark brown hair (much darker than Anna’s hair). You can see her father here. It is clear her father competed in kendo when he was in high school. Perhaps her mother, who appears to have dark brown hair in a cameo, is either non-Japanese or also has naturally brown hair? Perhaps there are answers in the manga source material, but it is never explicitly addressed in the anime (feel free to let me know if the Ippon Again! manga has more information).
Tsumugi Himeno is first featured in the second half of Ippon Again! She joins (or re-joins, if we are being accurate) the judo club shortly after her introduction episode. However, despite her lack of presence early in the series, she features in the anime’s opening and ending songs. After seeing Anna’s brown hair scene in episode 3, I was curious if the series would address Tsumugi’s obviously brown hair.
We learn indirectly in the first Tsumugi-focused episode of Ippon Again! that, unlike Anna, her hair is not naturally brown. While I complained about the series’ excessive use of flashbacks in my general introduction, a flashback scene showing Tsumugi’s first stint in the judo club proves useful here. She is depicted with black hair in what would have been about a year before the events of Ippon Again!:
After some initial indecision, Tsumugi joins the judo club. She goes out to eat with her new teammates to celebrate. (Before continuing, we should note that because Tsumugi’s four teammates are all first-year students at the high school, none of them would have known her when her hair was black.) Tsumugi offers to pay for everyone’s meal and states that the only thing she had to spend the money she made at her part-time job was trips to the salon. This prompted Tsumugi to ask the question that we have been waiting for.
Anna, who had previously been accused of dying her hair, knows a non-natural brunette when she sees one (apparently). She correctly observes that Tsumugi is not only dying her hair brown, but also curling it. Anna’s intent is not to criticize Tsumugi. She instead asks (perhaps out of curiosity) whether Tsumugi will get in trouble. If anyone knows how one could get in trouble for impermissible hair color, it is Anna. However, Tsumugi has put more thought into the issue than any of her new friends could have imagined:
Without being prompted, Tsumugi implies that she only needs to avoid Gondo to go without issues at school. Whenever she is somewhere where Gondo will be present, she dons a black wig. Michi immediately announced that she wanted to try the wig on. Tsumugi handed her wig to Michi, who proceeded to wear it for the duration of their meal.
This was another interesting and well-done hair color scene in Ippon Again! The Anna scene showed us that an over-zealous teacher can jump to conclusions about a student with brown hair. However, while Anna’s brown hair was acceptable under the school’s dress code because that was her natural hair color, Tsumugi’s brown hair would not be since she was dying her hair (see my real world article on new dress code rules in Tokyo that recognize this distinction). Fortunately for Tsumugi, we can gather from this scene that most of the teachers at Aoba West were not particularly concerned about a girl violating the dress and grooming code by dying her hair brown (we saw earlier in the episode that the judo club instructor, Shino, did not mention Tsumugi’s hair – and Shino had been Tsumugi’s coach for the previous two years). So long as Tsumugi remembered to wear her black wig whenever she was in the same place as Gondo, all would be well.
I found it interesting to see Ippon Again! bring together two issues that I discussed in in articles about hair color in Japan, with the first being the situation for certain Japanese students with naturally brown hair in schools and the second being how to interpret hair color in Japanese anime, manga, and games. Ippon Again addresses the dress code issue more clearly than I had seen in any previous anime series while also indirectly making it very clear how we should understand hair color in the series. While very little of the series had to do with hair color, the scene wherein Michi stands up for Anna when Anna is unable to speak in her own defense was one of the finest scenes of the entire series (perhaps the best Michi-Anna scene). I would have written an article about that scene alone, but I held back after first watching to see if Ippon Again! would address the brown hair of the then-yet-to-be-introduced Tsumugi. That it did, with an indirect reference to Anna’s scene in episode three, made Ippon Again! the most interesting anime hair color case study that I have examined thus far (contrast with many other series that feature brown-haired high school students without additional commentary).