An Old Tradition
One theme that arises in Japanese drama, be it film or anime, is a character dramatically cutting off her hair. This is signals some kind of dramatic, life-altering change.
The only reason this is an issue for women alone in modern drama is because, well, there’s no samurai anymore. Male samurai wore their hair in a famous “top knot” style that became emblematic of their status in society. If a samurai was to abandon his societal role, either to join the priesthood or to choose life as a peasant (for samurai were, in later times, forbidden to work the fields, and thus, could quite seriously starve if unemployed), such a man would cut off his top knot and undergo a dramatic decline in social status.
(Of course, lower social status was preferable to starvation for many!)
Even so, the Japanese woman has long been associated with long, meticulously kept hair, and vice versa. An expression holds, “A woman’s hair is her life.” This exaggerates, but only for the purpose of underlining the great importance given to hair as a symbol of womanhood. For instance, geisha have long, ornately worn hair.
Thus, a woman of high status cutting her hair, such as to disguise herself to escape villains after her life, is a dramatic, perhaps even desperate act. When done out of volition rather than grim necessity, it vividly represents one individual’s resolve to make a dramatic break with her own past: to divide time between “the old me” and “the me there is now”.
To this day, this remains a symbol of a dramatic break with the past. It retains its ancient power over the Japanese mind, and thus avoids easy pigeonholing as a mere cliche. In art, symbols matter, and powerful symbols, used well, create strong cinema.
I wrote this post out of curiosity at reading a forum thread on a certain website where one person knew the correct reading of a character cutting off her hair, and others did not, treating the correct view as one opinion among many. In this case, it’s a symbol everyone (in Japan!) is expected to know. For those who know Japanese, and for those who do not, cultural knowledge is an important part of watching Japanese drama. – J