Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Hetalia: Axis Powers
DVD - Season 02
More international hijinks ensue as the countries of the world—personified by dashing young men (and sometimes women)—get into various scrapes. Germany, Italy and Japan's dreams of world domination may never get off the ground if Italy can't even master the simplest things like invading Africa. But sometimes there's also international co-operation, like when the different nations compare how they celebrate Christmas. Then again, maybe some cultural differences are just too much to bear, like when Japan tries to understand the ways of Britain and later America. Some blasts from the past also await, with historical segments that cover the raising and maturation of a young America, Russia's bumpy relations with his sisters Ukraine and Belarus, and the heartwarming story of how Switzerland and Liechtenstein came to be such good allies.
World War II? The Axis Powers? Never heard of 'em. As Hetalia enters its second season (which is really just the next 26 episodes of the series), it continues to jump around freely between different time periods and geographical scenarios, with the alliance between Germany, Italy, and Japan being just one of its many storylines. While familiar characters, catchphrases and jokes from earlier in the series continue to pop up, it's the fresh material that really shines here—new characters, new loosely-historical storylines, and new sources of humor to draw from in this one-of-a-kind comedy.
One of the early highlights on the disc is the "baby America" arc, where a number of European nations (but mostly Britain and France) find themselves squabbling over the rights to the New World. For those used to America's brash, self-centered character, the nation in his 17th-century child form is an adorable 180-degree turn, and of course many fans will be familiar with the situation from having studied it in school. The better you know the original, the more you'll enjoy the parody, as they say. However, some of the more obscure material (to non-history majors, that is) is equally entertaining. In the middle episodes, oft-neglected Russia gets a starring role as he struggles in his relations with Ukraine and Belarus—an entertaining subplot that not only illuminates the world of Eastern European politcs, but also manages to work in boob jokes and little-sister complex without being disgusting about it, which truly is a feat in itself. Further down the line is a brief story arc about Switzerland and Liechtenstein that will melt the hearts of viewers everywhere with its sweet portrayal of how the two nations' alliance came to be. Who said Hetalia was only about being funny? This one brings the drama, too.
But just as the second season has its hits, there are also plenty of misses. The "Chibitalia" subplot, with its continuing mishaps of a pint-sized Italy staying at Austria's house, never achieves any narrative cohesiveness—it's as if those segements are there just to fill up extra minutes. The same goes for any of the pointless dream sequences involving the Holy Roman Empire. In addition, Canada's presence as a one-joke character ("How come nobody notices me?") has all but worn itself out, and Italy's fawning dependence on Germany is pretty much dead as gag material too.
Even some of the ethnic humor falls flat: Britain's culture-clash when he stays over at Japan's house drags on too long, and the same with America and Japan comparing their differences—yes, we already know the stereotypes, no need to dwell on it for a full ten minutes. By contrast, the cultural oddities in the Christmas episode show how to do it right: if you're going to laugh at other people's nationalities, find something concretely amusing and laugh at that, not just exaggerated personality traits.
As a character-driven sketch comedy, the series doesn't call for a whole lot of flashy animation—and thus, is actually a good fit for Studio DEEN's mediocre talents. Let's be honest: talking heads, plain backgrounds (or even worse, no backgrounds) and slow still-frame pans are not going to win any critics' awards. Where the visuals do excel is in the bright color palette and fast-paced scene changes, which add energy and excitement where pure animation technique is lacking. The squishy-cute character designs are also appealing (and they actually added some girls this time, what a shock!) but the growing surplus of short-to-medium-haired blond guys is really making it hard to tell people apart.
Another major source of humor in this series is, of course, the gloriously over-the-top voice acting, from Germany's booming diction to Canada's near-whisper and all the varieties in between. The Japanese audio track already showcases a wide range of voices among the cast, but of course it's those loud, crazy Americans on the English dub who really go all out. With the actors trying to keep up with the pace of the dialogue—not to mention smooth over some of the cultural references—it's only to be expected that some translational inaccuracies will result. The real bumps in the road, though, are the regional accents used throughout the dub: some characters drift in and out of their accents, while others seem to be just lilting their voices and mispronouncing words at random (the rarely-seen Scandinavian characters like Finland and Sweden seem to be particularly bad in this regard). Despite that, however, it's clear that the dub actors are having a blast being as ridiculous as possible.
There's even ethnic humor to be found in the ending theme song, which switches periodically between different versions sung by Italy, Germany, America, Japan, and sometimes Russia (complete with trembling balalaika). However, the background music during each episode is more ordinary, relying mostly on simple melodic cues and the occasional classical tune for laughs.
Fans of interviews and commentary will find the extras in this DVD package right down their alley—not only are four of the episodes dubbed over with English-language commentary, but there's an entire second disc with director and seiyuu interviews from the Japanese releases of Hetalia. Of course, others may simply want to play with the Hetalia-themed kerchief that comes in the DVD box as an additional tchotchke.
Even with new characters and new gags, the second season of Hetalia retains the same tone as its predecessor, forever jumping around at hyper speed in search of more historical buffoonery, ethnic jokes, or just general goofball behavior. When there's a genuine anecdote to tell, or trivia to be learned, the results can be very satisfying—just ask Russia or Switzerland. But the series also has a bad habit of wearing out a punchline past its expiration date, and it sure would be nice if Chibitalia would move out of Austria's house already. The overall product is no artistic masterpiece, but it is not nearly as awful as some of the haters would have you believe. Scatterbrained? Plotless? Obnoxious? Of course. But on its good days, it's also a lot of lighthearted fun.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : C+
+ New personalities and storylines add both humor and heart to the series, and the English dub, for all its faults, is still genuinely entertaining.
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