Racial humor! Gay jokes! Ridiculous accents! Skewed versions of historical events! Welcome to Hetalia!
Hetalia: Axis Powers began as a webcomic, then became a manga in 2008 and an anime series in 2009. My introduction to the series came courtesy of Anime Boston cosplayers. I saw people dressed in what appeared to be World War II garb, and heard various descriptions of “Hetalia fangirls” running about. Having never seen the show, I didn’t know who was who or what they were talking about in their funny accents. Then, over the summer, I caught a few episodes on the Funimation network. And I was very confused. The first scene I watched featured one character (who turned out to be “Grandpa Rome,” aka Ancient Rome), telling another one (Germany) about how in the good ol’ days of his reign he used to eat, drink and have sex all day. My reaction was, what on earth?
I was a little slow to realize that the characters are supposed to be anthropomorphic personifications of the various countries that played major roles on the political world stage. Hetalia, to sum it up very generally, is basically a comical, allegorical retelling of World Wars I and II, as well as a few other significant political events that range from the American Revolution to Japan’s opening up to foreign trade (Or as an American character puts it: “Now you’re rockin’ with your cock out!”).
Each country is represented by a character, and their various stereotyped traits may lead some to question: Is Hetalia racist? But any time you decide to have one character represent an entire country, you’re inevitably going to wind up stereotyping. In Hetalia, it’s pretty much the name of the game.
In fact, the very name of the show is pretty racist: “Hetalia” is a portmanteau of the Japanese word hetare (“pathetic”) and Italia, thus implying that Italy is a wimpy, cowardly country. And that’s exactly what the white flag waving character Italy leads us to believe. The loud, boisterous, singing and whining Italy (who often shouts “Pasta!” for no apparent reason) is as spineless and obnoxious as they come– and yet, adorable! Just like all Italians! Right? Oops…
If you’re not careful, Hetalia’s blatant stereotyping could rub off on you. For example, if you find yourself quoting Japan (“I must confess to a rov-uh [love] of pizza”), you could be a little bit racist.
I found myself laughing at what is perhaps the anime’s best impersonation: America. The character of America is the loudest, most obnoxious of all as he constantly demands all attention be focused on him (“I’m here now, and that’s all that matters!”), crams his face full of fast food (“Why am I gaining weight? I just ate some genetically modified beef and washed it down with this soda!”) and shouts his most constant, quotable line: “I’m the hero!” (If you ever go to an anime convention, you WILL hear this shouted down many a corridor.)
The interplay between America and Britain (called England in the Japanese version) is particularly amusing. It is, at times, one of sibling rivalry or a child rebelling against his stuffy, conservative parent. Sometimes the two bond over their mutual hatred of France, who is portrayed as a pretty boy with long, flaxen hair and a way with the ladies… and the dudes. In a scene where Japan, Italy and Germany are interviewing the other characters on how they celebrate Christmas, the French holiday is referred to as “gay Christmas” (America’s is “fat Christmas” while Russia’s is “godless” and “pagan”; haha, everyone!).
Also amusing: the way the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) cower around Russia, who is the tallest of all the characters. He also has a jolly voice and cheerful disposition, but constantly frightens and intimidates the other countries as he utters demands of “Join with me!” One of his favorite characters to stalk is China.
China, by the way, is one of the most adorable characters: he’s actually reminiscent of Gundam Wing’s Wufei, if Wufei wielded a wok as a weapon and harbored a love for Hello Kitty. But the cutest character by far is Japan. Considering the source, that’s probably no accident. Polite and reserved to a fault, he is charming and kind even whilst plotting with Germany and Italy (the Axis Powers) to basically take over the world. For a second, you could get caught up in the cuteness and forget that this show is based upon real historical events: “Aw! If only Japan had won the war; he’s so cute!” But, hey, it’s OK, because Japan and America wind up becoming buddies in the end. Yay!
Speaking of the end, season 2’s conclusion seems rather open-ended. Now I’m not sure whether there are more seasons of Hetalia on the way, or whether it’s because the episodes aren’t presented in chronological order. That means you can probably watch the show in any order you want, and still make sense of it; there’s not much to try to figure out, since it’s pretty non-sensical. It’s a crazy, brightly-colored romp of a show, which reminded me of the crazy-funny Excel Saga: random, random, random. Hetalia is a rollercoaster ride of an anime, and one episode rolls straight into the next… and the next, and the next. It doesn’t help (or does it?) that each episode is about five minutes long. I watched both seasons over the course of a few nights, because I simply didn’t know when to stop. The show just kind of keeps going, if you don’t have the discipline to turn off your DVD player and call it a night. If you love the show and its silliness, you might never want to!
Pros: It’s cute, it’s happy, it’s funny, and the characters are super-kawaii. I love politics and all, but who doesn’t want to just have a good laugh at some of life’s more serious things?
Cons: Whether or not you find the stereotypes racist, the show does reduce some dark, violent moments in history to goofy, lighthearted fare: wars are depicted by the characters whacking each other with sticks (or China’s weapon of choice, the wok). Germany is presented as strong, militant and hard-working (he is also obsessed with cleaning), and grudgingly kind-hearted toward Italy (Germany is also a cosplay favorite). Even Hitler makes an appearance as Germany’s “crazy boss” (I’m both German and Jewish and still LOL’d over this). Some of the blatant stereotyping is the fault of the voice actors, who are doing WAY over-the-top imitations. In the Japanese version, the accents didn’t seem to be as pronounced (though I am not Japanese, therefore their imitations could have been lost in translation for me). Part of the problem is that Funimation tends to recycle its voice actors, and not all of them seem capable of doing realistic accents (Finland and Russia sound almost exactly the same, for example).
So if you’ve got a wacky sense of humor, appreciate some good ol’ allegory, and aren’t too sensitive to laugh at your own ethnicity, whatever it may be, Hetalia might be the comedy series for you. However, if you’re still burned up over Hiroshima or Pearl Harbor, or happen to be Italian, Russian or French, you could be highly offended. You have been warned!
Thanks to FUNimation for providing a review copy!