No, you did not misread that title. This week’s column covers what is one of the most controversial anime around. Yet bizarrely, it is also one of the most loved, especially amongst its highly dedicated fanbase.
Originally a manga strip starting in 2006, Hetalia: Axis Powers is an example of “moe anthropomorphism”. The term “moe” (pronounced “mo-e”) is a word with multiple meanings in Japan, but in this context it tends to mean a rather cute anthropomorphising of, well, just about anything. In Japan there are moe anthropomorphic personifications of animals, computers, software, weapons, games and so on. In this series, it’s countries.
Hetalia: Axis Powers is possibly the most P.C. non-P.C. work of fiction around. It is a comedy about World War II from a country that lost World War II, in which all the characters are the stereotyped personifications of the nations of the world. The idea itself is one that raises eyebrows in this country, but it is surprisingly popular. Broadcast online, it has released more episodes of any online anime around, currently 119 five-minute shorts since 2009, as well as a film. Fans even celebrate a “Hetalia Day” around United Nations Day (24th October), with the latest being on Saturday 26th October 2013.
The series tells the story of the war, other events in world history, and also has satirical comic swipes at the world today, as told by the rather cute personifications of the participating nations. The central characters are those that formed the Axis Powers during the war. The main character is Italy, or to be exact, North Italy or Italy Veneziano (his older brother Romano represents the South). Italy loves pasta, pizza, women and art. The one thing he cannot do is fight, despite his grandfather being Ancient Rome. Instead he likes to depend on help from Germany: a serious, bureaucratic, efficient man who spends most of his time fixing Italy’s mistakes. Later they form an alliance with Japan, a quiet, over-polite man who due to his isolation from the rest of world often suffers from culture shock. Together the trio think that they can take on the world and make the globe revolve around them.
However, another bunch of countries are out to stop them: the Allies. But they have their own problems. America believes himself to be the central leader and hero of the story, but everyone else finds him annoying. France is a long-haired flirt who considers himself to be the elder statesman of Europe. China is seemingly immortal and seems to end up having to do all the work the Allies come up with. Due to his violent history gigantic Russia is unaware of his own violent insanity and most other countries are terrified of him. Finally there is the “gentleman punk” with bushy eyebrows. A country who is a horrible drunk, is so haunted he can see anything supernatural, and is the worst cook in the entire world: England.
At first appearances this series may well spark complaints of racism, and it did. In South Korea, which suffered much under Japan during the war, they protested against the series claiming the personification of their country was racist. As a result it was never broadcast on television. Despite this, the character of South Korea never appeared in the anime, only in the manga. Also, logically, if all the characters are stereotyped then arguably all the countries are on a level playing field. Another factor is that Japanese schoolchildren are taught very little about the war. As a result Hetalia probably teaches children more about the war than any school textbook.
Also of consideration are the jokes themselves. In Britain comedians might do jokes about Poland, or generalise about the whole of Eastern Europe, especially when it comes to immigration. In Hetalia, because it mocks so many countries, arguably it is less offensive because it is not as generalising. There are separate characters and jokes for example representing Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belarus and more.
Hetalia is certainly an acquired taste, and there are issues (the fact that Scotland, Wales and the two Irelands have yet to appear for starters, but it does feature Sealand) It is not for everyone. But once you watch a few episodes you may well find yourself hooked.
Out of the five series of Hetalia, four have so far been released: series 1-2 as “Axis Powers” and series 3-4 as “World Series”. These and the film, “Paint It, White!” are released on DVD by Manga Entertainment. Series 5, “The Beautiful World” is waiting for a release.