Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
I’d personally be hard-pressed to look at the 100-episode run of Hetalia: Axis Powers and describe it as anything other than a light-hearted parody of world cultures – it’s a show that takes great pains to make the differences between, say, an American and an Englishman not only entertaining to watch, but often downright funny.
For those uninitiated into the Hetalia craze, a brief explanation: in the original web-comic by Himaruya Hidekazu, every country in the world has a human manifestation, a person who represents the typical traits and values of that country, for better or for worse. Across history, these personifications interact with one another in a manner similar to (although not an exact copy of) the relations between their historical governments.
This basic recipe leads to a bunch of comical exchanges between the personifications, and thus between their cultures. The curious love-hate relationship between the English and the French; the bonding between Greece and Japan over a mutual love of cats; Switzerland’s determination to remain always neutral, even if it means shooting everyone who sets foot on his land. It is breezy social commentary hidden behind a cutesy veneer, but it doesn’t aim to cut to the quick, either.
If you glimpse around the internet, however, you come across [post] after [post] and [forum] after [forum] of people complaining that the show is “offensive” or “degrading” to particular cultures. “It makes all Italians look like airheads or Mafioso thugs,” they cry, or “The Chinese character ends all of his sentences with the Japanese word for ‘opium’! That’s humiliating!” South Koreans have cried foul and even [banned the show] from airing in their country, presumably over the South Korean character’s affinity for grabbing the Japanese character’s (male) breasts. And I can actually see how some of these things might be misconstrued as degrading… if anyone were to take this show seriously.
Even the most cursory of glances at the artwork in Hetalia shows that this is meant to be a comedy, and a cute one at that. There are moments of seriousness, to be sure, but for every touching vignette about England and America in the American Revolutionary War or the bond between the Holy Roman Empire and Chibitalia (Young North Italy), there are a dozen gags about which nations still believe in imaginary (adorable) creatures. There’s an entire subseries called Nekotalia (Catalia), in which all of the characters are transformed into felines. And there are jokes about condom sizes – don’t forget the jokes about condom sizes.
“But—” some people will persist, “The show relies on stereotypes for its humor! That’s not okay!” My question for them is this: have you ever laughed at a dumb blonde joke? If so, then you’ve laughed at a stereotype. Watched a lot of sitcoms? Many of them rely on stereotypes (the overly stern father, the free-spirited teenager) for their punch lines. Stereotypes serve a comedic purpose in that humor is achieved when a person acts in accordance with or breaks away from their stereotype. It’s a foundation through which to get a quick understanding of a character, who will then change and grow as time goes by.
And to be clear, for the most part these people aren’t crying foul over the portrayal of another nation’s traits. There are exceptions, but most of these complaints are from people who dislike how their own nationality has been portrayed – they’re offended by the stereotype that is being applied to them.
Which begs the question: why are people so offended by a comedy series, unless it’s touching on some truths?
I’ve never lived anywhere outside of the United States, so I won’t even pretend to speak towards the feelings of others concerning their Hetalia nationality. But I can speak towards my own. Let’s start with a picture, shall we?
Yep, that’s Alfred F. Jones, or America, gleefully shoving a hamburger into his mouth while talking over the opinions of others. You can’t see the talking here, but trust me: that’s exactly what’s going on in this screenshot from the show.
The [Hetalia wiki] describes America as “a cheerful, energetic, yet somewhat conceited young man who is obsessed with heroes, justice, and freedom. He has the habit of sticking his nose into everyone else’s business […]. He loves hamburgers and junk food, to the point of an obsession [and] America is also known for not being aware of how ‘the atmosphere’ is when he is around others.”
Here, however, is the pièce de résistance: “America is shown to be ignorant of the geography outside his own home, believing that maps of the United States constitute the ‘world map’ and […] that he can simply get to other countries by car travel.” This is the part that would offend me… if we Americans didn’t [fare so terribly] when questioned on basic geography.
We eat so much fast food, [books] have been written and [movies] have been filmed on the subject. We pry so thoroughly into other people’s business that we have entire [websites] and [television shows] dedicated to the latest celebrity gossip. Our news is filled with cries for justice, or for freedom, or for the other buzz words of political rhetoric.
Sounds like Hetalia’s America to me.
Granted, if I thought this characterization was being irrevocably applied to me as a person, I’d be a little miffed. I recognize, however, that the aforementioned character sketch applies to one person and one person only: Himaruya Hidekazu’s Alfred F. Jones.
There are admirable aspects to the real America, of course. Loyalty, tenacity, the can-do and inventive attitude of a nation of dreamers. All of these things are present in Hetalia as well, but people aren’t as quick to point out the positive characteristics simply because they don’t make for inflammatory arguments.
The fact of the matter is, despite Americans being portrayed as clueless, hamburger-chomping busy-bodies, I really like Alfred – he’s earnest, optimistic, and endearing. And he certainly isn’t the only character whose flaws hide a charming personality.
England, despite being a terrible drunk and having a pretty short temper, is portrayed as a sensitive man who once earnestly wished to do only the best for his young charge, America. France, while an incorrigible playboy and quick with the insults, is nonetheless always there when his friends, Spain and Prussia, truly need him. Northern Italy may be a bit of an airhead (Hetalia is a combination of the words hetare and Italia, or “useless Italy”), but he’s the sweetest person in the world, and he only wants to have fun with his best friend, Germany. As for South Korea … well, he definitely loves big-brother Japan.
If my examples aren’t proof enough, the show is about the relationships between countries, their connections and their friendships. It isn’t about groups of countries ostracizing one another. It isn’t about discrimination. Every character is exactly as flawed as the next; no country is put forward as the paragon towards which all other nations should strive.
The controversy about Hetalia doesn’t end with the people crying foul over stereotypes, however; there’s also the argument that, because some of the periods in history with which Hetalia deals were dark and tragic, no humor should ever be applied to them. I’ll respond to that with one well-worn platitude: anything worth taking seriously is worth being satirized.
Look at [Blackadder Goes Forth], the fourth season of the BBC comedy that deals primarily with trench warfare and the British command in World War I. Surely, the First World War is just as sensitive a topic for some as the Second, and yet Blackadder is still able to find and exploit the humor in three men’s attempts to escape from under the comic mismanagement of their leaders.
Then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s [Inglourious Basterds], the 2009 blockbuster that turned World War II into Lieutenant Aldo Raine’s personal quest to kill every Nazi he could get his hands on in the most gruesome way possible. For all the gore of the movie and for all the seriousness of World War II, Inglourious Basterds is chock full of dark humor that helped propel it to box office glory.
Unlike Inglourious Basterds, Hetalia doesn’t really deal with the darkest moments in history. The show might be named for the Axis Powers in World War II, but the entirety of that war’s combat is condensed to one oft repeated scene on an island where America commands China to beat the Axis Powers over the head with a wok. This attack is always interrupted: once by the ghost of the Roman Empire singing a jaunty tune, another time by Finland playing Santa Claus… in July.
The show doesn’t even take itself seriously, much less expect its viewers to do so.
Finally, the last argument that people pull out regarding Hetalia is that its initial anime run was on a Japanese children’s network. The theory is that, by exposing children to stereotypes of cultures, they were preparing them to be bigots in adulthood. I’ll go ahead and grant this one to the naysayers – I would hate to be associated with the corruption of children – at least until I point out that the run on the children network was [cancelled], presumably for just that reason.
Instead, Hetalia was distributed via cell phone and internet services, and at least in America, marketing of the series has definitely been geared towards the teen and young adult demographics. These target audiences are certainly old enough to look beyond the stereotypes, and they should know better than to assume that any Hetalia character is the end-all, be-all of their culture.
Ultimately, what I’m saying is this: Hetalia: Axis Powers is a comedic parody of different cultures and how they interact with one another. It is not an attempt to cut down any one culture, nor is it an attempt to raise any one above the others. It’s supposed to be a diabetes-inducing cute-fest with a historical bent. It’s supposed to be mindless entertainment.
Anyone who reads much more into it is digging for a reason to be offended where none exists.