When Hidekaz Himaruya set out to make a webcomic starring personifications of the nations of the world, he was working in a field that stretches back to the beginnings of the nation-state as a single unity. There’s an undeniable utility to distilling a national essence down into a single, simple figure. It’s a trope that’s served many masters, from the hackiest political cartoonist to angry propagandists to the paranoid racism of the Kaiser, who commissioned kitschmeister Hermann Knackfuss to paint Brittania, France’s Marianne, Germania, Athena, Mother Russia and other European signifiers facing off against the menacing storm of Asia.
Himaruya’s motives, however, are vastly more benign. The only thing his national characters are trying to incite is laughter. HETALIA began as a webcomic in 2003, first online while Himaruya was a student at Parsons School Of Design in NYC. HETALIA, a combination of “hetare” (useless) and “Italia”, stars the nations of the world in the form of dishy, slightly dim young guys who tease each other according to their stereotyped national characteristics. The series first began with the friendship of strict Germany and clumsy Italy, and soon swelled to include caricatures of most of Europe, Asia, and North America, all bumbling through interactions and historical pastiches highlighted by their concomitant national personalities. Germany is loud and detail-oriented, Greece is sleepy, England’s cultured exterior almost disguises his cynicism, France is prideful, stubborn, and promiscuous, America is boisterous and energetic, and Canada is either forgotten or mistaken for America, which is not a surprise.
HETALIA has its own logic. If you accept the political-cartoon trope of nations being personalized as characters - and anyone who’s ever seen the editorial page of a newspaper more or less has to - then you can grasp the conceit HETALIA lives by, the idea that the nations of the world, big and small, are represented by cartoony guys and a few gals who all kind of hang out with each other in a weird geopolitical twilight zone. It’s a concept that gets stretched a bit whenever the story has to introduce characters like soldiers or politicians as people and not as geopolitical nation-states, but HETALIA never takes itself seriously enough to even begin to worry about making sense on that level. It’s a unique and difficult-to-explain premise, one that gives the series appeal above and beyond any intended comedy value. HETALIA, like magical girls, sentai shows, or super robots, is one of those uniquely Japanese entertainment concepts that is inexplicable and entertaining at the same time.
The series has clued anime fans into what that quiet history major in your class already knew - that history is fascinating, full of dick moves and tragic-comic failures and stereotypes writ large. Rather than present these things in dry textbook fashion, HETALIA the anime stays close to its webcomic roots, presenting the story in short five-minute bursts, an animated version of potato chips. You can’t watch just one.
HETALIA fandom flashed into being almost immediately, filling Deviantart with fan art and Livejournal with fan fiction and the rest of the internet with arguments pro and con about your favorite pairing or historical footnotes or complaints about it all. The fandom went so far as to declare ‘World Hetalia Day’ in which cosplayers gather around the world to portray their favorite nations in public places. Few anime series can claim this level of devotion.
HETALIA’s anime began online, was eventually broadcast on Japanese cable TV, spawned a feature film, and so far has made it through four seasons with a fifth on the way. The manga is available in print, online, and delivered to mobile devices like cell phones. As a cross-platform property HETALIA may be a harbinger of things to come; penetrating nearly every media delivery device with the kind of all-encompassing reach that most entertainment executives can only dream about.
The Studio Deen animation is simplistic, providing a solid platform for attractive, merchandise-friendly character designs and the stop-start rhythms of the show’s rapid fire gags. There’s a friendly, low-key humor to the show as the nations/characters scheme and plan and bounce off each other, marred only by a painful reliance on gay panic jokes, and even that is offset somewhat by HETALIA’s earnest desire to reference actual history as much as possible. New viewers might be confused by the sheer number of characters, but the learning curve is steep yet short. Aside from its obvious appeal to the fujoshi cute-guy-shipping fanbase, HETALIA has enough history to keep the interest of anybody even remotely intrigued by world events, politics, culture, or any combination thereof.
Funimation has assembled the 5-minute segments into broadcast-friendly half-hours, which makes for a more cohesive DVD experience. Season 3 has 24 episodes and at 5 minutes each you can burn through the whole thing in a couple of hours, or stop and start at will with ease. Longer continued stories are broken up with short blackout gag episodes, keeping things fresh, and the series can go from the 17th century to ancient Rome to the Renaissance to the 1950s without blinking an eye. You’ll see the creation of the Austria-Hungary alliance explained through flashbacks, America dresses up like Santa Claus to explain Christmas to Japan, England feels rejected because of the Japanese/Russian friendship treaty (as ordered by “Japan’s boss”, meaning, what, the bakufu?), America meets a space alien at Roswell, etc. You can, and people do, spend as much time as you like uncovering the historical events that HETALIA mines for comedy, and a large part of the “extras” disc for each season is devoted to an in-depth exploration of each story’s historical background. Or lack thereof, in the case of the “Roswell Incident” (spoiler: it wasn’t really a flying saucer.)
After a rocky start, the Funimation dub cast has settled into their dialects. Occasionally, comprehensibility will lapse as the comedy foreign accents overpower coherence. The dub scripts will sometimes venture so far afield from the original intent that it reminds the viewer of a fan-parody dub. Holding it all together, Jamie Marchi’s narration delivers needed socio-political context in a humorous, slightly mocking tone.
The second disc in each set is full of extras. Perhaps vital to your enjoyment of HETALIA, “The Hidden History Hidden Within Hetalia” is a point-by-point breakdown of every historical event referenced within the show. You’ll get the background on events that happened two or three thousand years ago right up to the currently ongoing European debt crisis, from the well known Charlemagne and the War Of Austrian Succession to the obscure facts behind Burzenland and the Teutonic Knights and the thousand-year-old Ypres Cat Festival. Other extras feature footage of a Hetalia fan event at the Tokyo International Anime Festival and a voice actor event at the Sunshine 60 building in Ikebukuro.
Season Four continues in the same format; 24 five-minute episodes sequestered into half-hour blocks. China, a youngish-looking guy with a fondness for food and bootlegging toys, emerges as a modern world power out from under the thumb of the Western nations. Poland and Lithuania form an alliance, and we find out what the cats of the nations of the world are like. America visits Japan in order to begin a friendship and get some whaling done. The extras disc includes another Hidden History Hidden Within feature, a long interview with the Funimation voice cast shot at Otakon in 2011, a few shorts not included in the main anime season, a fan event in Taiwan, a fan event in Roppongi, a talk between anime director Bob Shirahata and Hiroki “Germany” Yasumotoh, “Draw A Circle, That’s The Comment Corner” (a TV broadcast voice talent introduction), and a post-movie premiere VA discussion.
HETALIA is a Japanese anime series that doesn’t really fit inside the American fan’s preconceived notions – it’s not a long-form adventure series with fantasy heroes, a high school comedy starring teenage girls in swimsuits, or a gritty cyberpunk dystopia. Instead, HETALIA comes out of a long tradition of Japanese gag manga, popular in Japan but ignored in the West, and as a prerequisite for enjoyment the reader needs to care not just about cartoons but about the world outside, a sentiment antithetical to most fan-favorite media. Can HETALIA bring history to the masses via cartoons and stereotypes and gags? Judging from its success, it already has.