WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE END OF THE FIRST VOLUME OF THE MANGA
Visual metaphor doesn’t have to be complex or esoteric to be beautiful. In fact, some of the most affecting uses of the technique are quite obvious, with the simplicity of the connection between sign and signifier adding to the work’s profundity. What this simplicity may cost a work in nuanced storytelling, it can more than make up for in clarity of meaning and purpose. Eastern fantasy shoujo manga Yona of the Dawn provides us with one such example of clean, straightforward visual metaphor: Yona’s relationship with her hair.
Mangaka Mizuho Kusanagi has taken great pains to craft lovely, detailed tresses for her story’s heroine and to retain this look in each and every panel. Yona’s lovely long hair serves to distinguish her as royalty, and she dedicates a significant chunk of time to their maintenance. Also, from Yona’s perspective, her hair is the chief mode of expression for her beauty and youth; when Su-won (her crush) comes to the palace, the first thing she wants to make sure is on point isn’t her outfit, accessories or makeup, but her hair.
In order to continue exploring the symbolic relationship between locks and lady, we need to talk about specific events in the story and establish appropriate context for those events. Here is a quick and dirty summary of the first two volumes of the manga (the only two officially available in English at the time of this writing). Yona is the princess of a fictional, faux ancient
Chinese Korean(thanks to @joyofthejoui for correcting me here) kingdom called Kohka which governs five separate tribes. It’s fair to say that princess Yona leads a charmed life. Unfortunately, on the night of her sixteenth birthday party tragedy strikes. Su-won murders Yona’s father and seizes control of the throne.
Yona and bodyguard Hak flee to the land of the Wind Tribe, to escape Su-won’s reach. However, no sooner have they caught their breath than they discover that the Fire Tribe has cut off The Wind Tribe’s water supply. Both Yona and Hak independently make up their minds to leave Fuuga in order to avoid a full scale war between tribes. Hak’s grandfather Mun-deok advises them to seek counsel from one of the priests wandering the wastes, but while exploring the uninhabited area, they are confronted by the Fire Tribe, chief supporters of Su-won.
It is in this confrontation that Yona’s interaction with her hair comes to the forefront of the story and is its most openly symbolic. Yona stands up to the Fire Tribe. Her passionate defiance of them and verbal degradation of their actions is her first real step towards being a young woman with full and robust agency.
After she sees Su-won murder her father, Yona goes into a sort of emotional coma. It’s not bad enough that she has to come to terms with the most traumatic event in her life and process her grief, but, since she’s lived the sheltered life of royalty, Yona’s concept of suffering is severely underdeveloped. She’s never had experience with tragedy. Getting a grip on Yona’s new reality would be difficult for anyone, but she also has to incorporate this brand new concept of gratuitous suffering.
For a while, the shock to her system sends her into a shell. But, when Hak takes her to the Wind Tribe, and she sees the grace with which they bear their undue punishment at the hands of the Fire Tribe, the part inside of Yona that had frozen begins to thaw. Later, as the Fire Tribe takes up arms against Hak, the man who has personally sacrificed more than any other for Yona’s sake, what was thawing within her bursts into flames. Rather than continuing to feel helpless in the face of injustice, Yona rails against it and, rather than hiding while Hak fights, she reveals herself and confronts a Fire Tribe general.
When Yona attempts to help Hak, the general grabs her by the hair to prevent her from rushing to him. She reaches toward the general’s waist, unsheathes his sword, and frees herself from his grasp by slicing through her hair. The metaphor here is as clean as the cut. Yona was releasing herself from more than just the grip of an enemy; she severs ties with the sheltered princess that she was by cutting off the thing that embodies that way of life. Her long, beautiful hair is a symbol of her royalty, but, by cutting it, Yona has taken the first step on the path to becoming something more than just a kept princess.
It sounds so inevitable when I write it out, so very pat. But, this moment hits. Hard. We’ve never seen the look in Yona’s eyes that’s pictured above. We’ve never seen her draw a sword or even make a swift movement. Kusanagi depicts the princess’s emotional transformation from spunky teen to listless lethargic doll in such a methodical, natural manner that the reader almost shares the Fire Tribe’s disbelief when Yona challenges their actions. Something has erupted within Yona, though, and that too is natural. This eruption is the culmination of injustice after injustice being laid on top of the heart of someone with a fierce, naive sense of righteousness.
In light of this strong visual symbolism, it’s interesting to go back and examine earlier hair-related events. From the beginning the the manga, Yona was never comfortable with her hair. Its texture frustrated her, its color puzzled her. She never felt truly happy with it until the moment Su-won complimented it. In the moment that he gifted her a hairpin and told her he loved it, Yona adored her hair for the first time. The man who allowed her to start to accept the physical feature most closely tied to her identity as royalty is also the person who destroyed that identity. By fulfilling his dark ambitions, Su-won killed so much more than just the king.
At the end of the second volume of Yona of The Dawn, Hak and the princess tumble down a massive cliff to their apparent demise. The Fire Tribe general had wanted Yona for himself, and he returns, broken in spirit, to Su-won to report her death. He presents the newly crowned king with Yona’s severed locks, which he presumably never let go, as proof of her passing. But, though Yona lives, Su-won isn’t wrong for believing the Yona he knew is dead. In a sense, Yona died the day that the love of her life broke her world apart by murdering her father and driving her from Hiryuu Palace. Her “resurrection” entails the removal of the physical symbol of what Su-won loved about who she used to be.
Yona cutting her hair is not only the high point of drama in the series so far, it also serves as a visual metaphor for Yona severing ties with her old self and starting anew. Certainly, it is a simple metaphor, but that is its elegance and, thus, its power. Yona’s drastic act is also not a symbol in isolation; we can understand so much about her character arc to this point by examining her relationship with her hair.
You can check out The Subtle Doctor’s reviews of each volume of Yona of the Dawn here.