From Slayers’ Lina Inverse to High School DxD’s Rias Gremory, there are seemingly endless numbers of fantasy heroines in anime and manga that sport red hair. Why is it so common, and what meanings does red hair possess in these stories?
In my experience, there are three main categories of redhead fantasy heroines, each of them associated with certain traits and values that make them popular in fantasy settings. These are Fiery Warriors, Exotic Destinies, and Sexy Demons.
Not limited to fantasy genres, red hair typically means a fiery and passionate temperament in anime and manga. In the context of fantasy narratives, these heroines are aggressive, frequently tomboyish, and are ready to fight at a moment’s notice. Given the common sight of magic in these worlds, it should be no surprise that these redheads can often literally set the world on fire.
Examples include the aforementioned Lina Inverse, Hikaru Shidou from Magic Knight Rayearth, and Emi Yusa from The Devil is a Part-Timer! Lina is a powerful sorceress who specializes in fire and black magic, with a range of spells that lean towards “city-destroying.” Similarly, Hikaru is a feisty and energetic warrior who also commands fire; she can even summon Rayearth, a magical giant robot covered in flames. Though Emi does not have any magical powers beyond her sacred sort, she carries a similar ferocity.
In this second category of redhead heroine, red hair is a symbol of exoticism. Historically, red hair was considered a rare sight in Japan that was mainly associated with Dutch traders. While things have changed a lot over the centuries, the fact that red hair does not occur in the native Japanese population helps maintain its image.
Shirayuki from Snow White with the Red Hair, Youko Nakajima from Twelve Kingdoms, Shana from Shakugan no Shana, and Yona from Akatsuki no Yona are all instances where red hair is associated with rare beauty, a special destiny, or similar ideas.
Shirayuki’s hair is so rare in her world that it’s the first thing she notices. Youko is originally a brunette, but when transported to another world finds that her hair has turned red shortly before she is informed that she is destined to be ruler of this new land. Shana’s hair turns red when summoning the power of a Crimson Lord, allowing her to fight demons. Yona’s hair, in turn, invokes memories of a legendary hero and emperor of her world.
While human redheads often fall into the first two categories in fantasy anime and manga, scarlet hair is also regularly denizens of the netherworld as well as taboo behavior. Here, red hair becomes a symbol of not only the forces of darkness but also a healthy (or perhaps dangerous) sexual appetite.
Rias Gremory from High School DxD, Mio Naruse from Testament of Sister New Devil, and Miia from Monster Musume are all examples of demonic and erotic heroines. The famously voluptuous Rias is a devil from the pure-blooded Gremory clan, and is powerful enough to disintegrate matter. Mio is a demon princess whose arousals must be quelled by her step-brother. Miia is a Lamia, a half-human/half-snake monster from Greek legend. If video games are factored in, then Etna from the Disgaea series also falls into this category.
One Last Note: Beyond Fantasy
The most famous redhead in all of anime and manga is actually Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables. Though she is not a fantasy heroine in the traditional sense, her wild imagination and her self-consciousness about the color of her hair are both hallmarks of the series. Could it be that Anne’s legacy in anime indirectly influences all redheads that have come after her?