Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Hetalia: Axis Powers
DVD - Season 01
The time was WWI. Or perhaps it was WWII. Occasionally it may be in the Middle Ages, and sometimes the time is now. The one thing we do know is that Italy and Germany, despite centuries of changes and rough relations, have put aside their differences to become best friends and take over the world with their soft-spoken contrary friend, Japan. They are the Axis Powers and the only thing standing between them and world domination are another gaggle of frenemies, the Allies. Their self-elected leader America and his bitter older brother Britain can't stop squabbling enough to get much done, though, leading China to spend most of their meetings constructing settlements and selling food while France's only concern is the group's poor fashion sense and inhibited libido…both problems he is eager to remedy. Russia is better accustomed to cold, lonely climates where people hate each other quietly, so he simply observes with a smile. For all will become one with Russia someday…why can't we all just get along?
There are scarcely a handful of series out there that can tell you whether you'll love or hate them based on one episode. Hetalia doesn't even need one full episode, and that's saying something considering the episodes are only five minutes long. By the end of the introductory “world conference,” a raucous flowery nation-party gone awry composed entirely of bad stereotypes spouting bad jokes that culminate in the country of Italy shouting “PASTA!” for no good reason, around a third of the poor souls assaulted by this nonsense will be desperate to shut it off before the title has even risen from a field of sparkling rose petals. Those that survived the incomprehensible intro (choose subs, choose the dub, you still can't understand half of that terrifying two minutes,) will be treated to something that has never really been done before, but the question remains…should it have been?
The title “Hetalia” is a portmanteau of the words hetare and Italia. The latter's meaning is obvious, but the former means “useless coward” in Japanese. The star of our history lesson, the northern region of Italy to be specific, is portrayed as a fragile, babyish gourmet whose weapon of choice is a white flag. Germany only accepts his alliance grudgingly, and as the immature America is quick to point out, this may have a lot more to do with Italy's soft desirable “body,” (read: land, but then again…) than his usefulness in combat. Germany himself fits all the clichés associated with Deutschland: hard-nosed, humorless, and too ambitious for his own good.
The good news is that this is not a hateful smattering of international reputations but quite the opposite. For all his inadequacy, Italy is an endearing scamp, the Costello to Germany's Abbott, and throughout his “embarrassing history,” every country seems to like him for who he is. He is, in truth, a lovable useless Italy. (So…Hetaliaisubeki? No no, that's silly.) All his friends are as hopelessly charming in their faults, from Spain to Sealand, and it's really this sugar-sweet treatment that many could find offensive.
Japan has successfully reduced World War II, the single deadliest conflict in human history, the echoes of which still faintly pollute their country's air in particular, into a series of sitcom-esque shorts where both sides poke each other with sticks, whack each other with woks, and otherwise kick a little dirt around despite all being friends at heart…and sometimes more than friends…it is at some points educational and at others a genderbent Lucky Star, complete with the humble production values of that little oddity. It's a shame to paint the “plot” in broad strokes like this, but the show is nothing but a series of gags. It can't be explained without simply telling all the jokes, and that wouldn't be very nice at all.
The only important thing is despite its uncomfortable premise, there could scarcely be a more exuberant, motormouthed way of making it work. After a song featuring every nation marching on a rainbow and swigging beer from army boots, all the butterflies go away and take with them all pretense of political correctness. (Mind: this is still assuming you survived that world conference without rage fits.) There are two key reasons for this. Hetalia is not mean-spirited, and more of it is true than its garish introduction would suggest. We may roll our eyes and chide the creators for making jokes about Italy endangering the troops by wasting all their water to make pasta in the desert…but during the African Campaign, this actually happened! France's “proud” military history is a particularly tired joke that gets its own episode, but it cites historical events every step of the way in its light-hearted mockery.
Light-hearted, yes, but is it still offensive? Well, that all depends on who you are, and where you're from, but inevitably, something will make your jaw drop in disbelief, even if it's stated with a wink and a smile. Some may put forth that only the English dub is offensive, with its use of intentionally awful accents and a few added jokes, but emphasis should be placed on “few,” here. This is not one of Funimation's extensively rewritten outings like Sgt. Frog, a dub that turned a children's show into a more teen-aimed riffing. The subtitles and dub here are remarkably congruous for a comedy, but the dub adds several dozen jokes in to fill the incredibly rapid flaps. Most times it works and sometimes it doesn't, but on paper, not enough has changed to call one version raunchy and the other tame. Not even the criticism of accents applies considering the subbed version applies regional speech styles to its foreign nations as well. (The most egregious is poor China-“aru,” who actually inserts the word “opium” randomly into his sentences when talking with Britain.) In fact, that aforementioned joke about Germany's love of sodomy is left out of the dub, along with a few other raunchy asides.
What has really changed is intangible, not a facet of the script or the show itself, but its very presence in West: culture norms change everything. Not only through Hetalia, but anime in general, Japanese creators - obviously coming from the perspective of a society that is racially homogeneous - show less concern with racially insensitive material than a melting-pot nation like America does. Some scenes played straight and innocent in the sub of Hetalia come across as anything but in translation, so why should the dubbers bother fishing for a charmed reaction to the War of 1812 or the f-bomb stamped on a package from the Allies to Germany when none exists on this side of the globe? The dub opts for an openly satirical and naughty tone in those instances, but leaves the purely moe tales of baby nations Chibitalia and Lichtenstein chaste, and fealty be damned, it works. The Japanese and English versions here are very different experiences, but dependent on tastes, neither is more hilarious or better-executed than the other. The best option, clearly, is to watch both and vive la difference.
Extras include English voice actor commentaries, interviews with director Bob Shirohata, and a very helpful History Notes section that explains the bigger “huh?” moments in some episodes, and of course there are clean themes and previews. The set also comes with a cute bandana, perhaps a harbinger of more tangible extras from Funimation? Oh well, it makes a nice armband.
Rants about its subversive nature aside, Hetalia is the simplest of pleasures: a gag show. By all rights it shouldn't be as popular as it is, but there's nothing else out there quite like it, whether you find it brilliant or abysmal. The scariest thing of all is that this is, theoretically, a series that could go on forever and ever…as long as there are fangirls to squeal and history to be retold. Considering its mighty episode count within the past couple years alone, the bold young soldiers of World War “Fabulous” have not yet begun to fight.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : ?
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Mile-a-minute hilarious, affectionate yet sardonic, and even rather educational!
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