Hetalia: Axis Powers (now available on Netflix Instant) is an over-the-top allegory of world history and politics where the cast are personifications of countries and regions. With each episode averaging about five minutes in length, Hetalia breezes through its subject matter, rarely disrespectful and never reverential. You may not get all the references, but you’ll probably laugh, and maybe you’ll end up wanting to learn a little something too. No mean feat in 2012.
Both positive and negative stereotypes form the core of each character’s personality, although these stereotypes comes from a Japanese perspective and so sometimes can have interesting variations on what some of us accept as stereotypes from our own cultural perspectives (China’s place as a prominent member of the Allies is part of this). Still, cod philosophy aside, there are many funny, charming and interesting characters on the show, so let’s take a look at some of the best.
(This is certainly no definitive list, seeing as I’m leaving off China, who really should be on the list, Spain, Roman Empire, Greece, Switzerland, Netherlands, Lithuania, Poland and many, many others but it’s a good snapshot, I believe.)
Canada is the member of the Allies nobody ever notices. In fact, the Allies find it disconcerting to do a head-count because they’ll notice six people when clearly only five are present. He’s often confused for America when he is noticed, despite his radically different personality, although it’s true the two look nearly identical. Even Canada’s few friends often mistake him for America at first sight.
Friendly and eager to help, if never called upon, Canada represents all that is considered good about the country by other nations: i.e. its ability to put up with being patronised by clueless foreigners for years at a time.
Episode to Watch: Episode 19 sees Canada await its turn to speak at the latest Allied Summit. However his presence is only tangentially sensed, causing the others to worry about spies and ghosts while Canada cheerfully, if quietly, wait for his turn to contribute.
Sealand is the world’s smallest nation. Or not, as Sealand is an abandoned ocean fortress and is recognised by no nation as a sovereign state. Still, Sealand always does his best to get involved and works hard to make the United Kingdom rue the day he turned his back on him. Besides, who can resist his bargain-priced titles of nobility? Hey, even micro-nations need to increase their GDP somehow.
Sealand likes to ride his goat while swabbing the deck. As he goes to great pains to explain this is not a euphemism for anything. He also has an oddly shaped birthmark, but it would be quite rude to show it to you.
Episode to Watch: Episode 21 features the debut of Sealand and his attempts at international recognition, even if his leader insists on being called Super Larry. Lithuania tries to ward him off, explaining that bigger nations like Russia will be waiting to attack him.
Russia is broken. He’s insane. When Britain tries to summon a demon, it is Russia who appears. The Baltic countries cower in fear at his genial presence and warm smile. He likes the other Allies, even when they bicker, because he grew up very lonely and so enjoy the sounds. And besides, soon they will all be crushed under the weight of his overwhelming power, so there’s that.
Russia is a character driven mad by the violence of his past. Completely unaware of his own cruelty, he wishes to make the world “one with Russia”, although the only thing that terrifies him is Belarus, the one character that is obsessed with such a union.
Episode to Watch: Episode 29. Russia, being the expert on snowy weather, insists he can jump out of a plane without a parachute as the snow fields will cushion his fall. Back at his house, the terrified Baltic nations try their best not to enrage their master despite his genial disposition.
France is a great example of the reason why stereotypes are just that and not fact. The Anglo-centered viewpoint of France and the Japanese stereotypes of the nation are just dissimilar enough to be more than a little refreshing. Although he is still a bisexual lothario concerned more with the fashion of his uniform than its practicality. I guess some stereotypes are universal after all.
Of course, France still has to face up to the reality of his lacklustre performances in World War II, and his proposal of marriage to the UK later on is a particularly trying time for the haughty man who fruitlessly tries to grow facial hair to represent his place as an elder brother within the European family. But at least France’s confidence allows him to shake off the slings and arrows of his Anglo-American detractors while still outwitting the hopeless Italy.
Episode to Watch: Episode 10 sees France try to reconcile his current predicament with the glorious victories of his past. Although it seems only France fails to see that running in at the end of a war to kick a fallen enemy when he’s down is not a demonstration of great martial prowess.
The portrayal of Italy in Hetalia marks a difference between the perception of World War II by the two factions involved. If you essentially take all western stereotypes of France and its performance in World War II then apply them to Italy instead, you pretty much have the Japanese stereotype of the country. Even the very name “Hetalia” is a portmanteau of hetare (ヘタレ), a Japanese term for endearing incompetence and Italia (イタリア). He is, to paraphrase a very tired quote, the pasta eating surrender monkey.
But Italy’s lack of martial prowess, even if something of a myth (like the charges levelled at France, the truth is more complicated), is indeed endearing. Italy wants to sleep, eat and enjoy life. The world may be too complex to allow that but Italy shines in his ability to strike friendships with other nations, his good nature and his artistic talents. While other nations, such as Germany and Holy Roman Empire try to emulate their ancestor, Roman Empire, in terms of combat it is Italy who is the true heir to his grandfather’s legacy. A point repeatedly made throughout the show.
Episode to Watch: Episode 8. Although as the title character Italy is heavily featured in every episode, this episode sees him captured several times by the Allies, who desperately try to find some use for him while he calls his friends in the Axis for help.
In the World War II-centred skits, Austria lives in Germany’s house (living in someone else’s house being the Hetalia equivalent of annexation, unions or what have you), but in the Chibitalia skits (centred around Renaissance Europe) it is Austria who runs the Holy Roman household, encapsulating the sometimes confusing intertwined politics of the Hapsburg Monarchy and the Holy Roman Empire which it ruled while nominally being a subject of.
Austria’s love for music and culture means he gets along quite well with Italy, even if he is steadfast in his refusal to serve pasta at his home. Although reserved, Austria uses his music to display his emotions (He uses Chopin to admonish Germany when mere words will not do). Most of the other nations seem to indulge him in this, even if Switzerland has little patience for Austria’s sometimes superficially erudite ways (He’s secretly a huge cheapskate).
Episode to Watch: Episode 6 shows Austria’s residence at Germany’s house as being less than harmonious, culminating in his forcing Germany to wear patched boxer shorts, in the spirit of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I.
It’s a difficult line to walk, I would imagine, having a Germany character set predominately in World War II portrayed as amusing or sympathetic but I think Hetalia for the most part manages to find the right balance. Serious about everything, including his horrific collection of hardcore pornography, Germany (like all the characters in Hetalia) is working at behest of his “crazy boss” and so aims to win the war, more so he can stop making and selling cuckoo clocks to pay repartitions to France than any racial ambitions. Whitewashing? Perhaps, but what can you do?
The pressures he, and others, place on himself make him irritable and harsh, but deep down he’s sincere and worries about his friends in the Axis. He also seems to think that his older brother Prussia was really cool and powerful, despite evidence to the contrary. Still, he can’t help but wonder what he’s gotten himself into with this whole Axis deal. Isn’t anyone taking this war seriously?
Episode to Watch: Episode 14 is a feast of German stereotypes (and everyone else, in fact). Germany tries to purchase items at a supermarket only to be forced to wait due to Spain being the shopkeeper and Greece holding up the line. But I guess it’s better than having your ass felt up by Italy earlier that same episode.
3. United Kingdom
The UK (erroneously referred to as Britain or England, presumably for brevity’s sake) has so many different stereotypes attached to it in this show that it takes away a little from each and emerges as a fully realised character in his own right. It’s kind of impressive, especially if you’re one to tire of the “upper class, stiff upper lip” example of the UK.
Sure, the United Kingdom likes his tea and his inedible cuisine, but he’s also a rocker, playing off the mid 1960s British Invasion and the punk movement of the 70s (the UK even has a guitar tattoo), and probably the most coarse of the Allies in his speech. His long history and reputation as a centre of occultism in the early 19th and 20th centuries gives him arcane knowledge as well as the ability to see and converse with legendary creatures even when other nations cannot, such as Japan, who is so dedicated to progress he only carries the more superficial trappings of his past with him, and America, whose relative youth precludes him from developing such long-standing folklore.
Episode to Watch: Episode 26, where the UK attempts to mock America only to end up on the wrong side of a drinking contest, declaring himself to be “the United bloody Kingdom!” and attempting to curse America with a doomed historical artefact.
Japan is sometimes viewed as a curious mixture of pride and self-depreciation, where there is shame, but not culpability for the deeds of the nation as the Empire of Japan. Hetalia does a good job of exploring its own stereotypes, rather than making Japan the only sane member of a cast of kooky foreigners. As an anime, it also gives us a more personal insight into how Japan views itself and while most of the time that means that we get to chuckle as Japan disdains physical contact while secretly collecting erotic woodcuts for his own uses or openly states his preference for 2D women, it also means that as a Japanese produced anime, it has more freedom to cast a critical eye on the country than it might have for others.
Japan’s (the nation) notorious group dynamic means that Japan (the character) mostly speaks in platitudes or outright refusals (or outright refusals disguised as platitudes), needlessly irritating or confusing the others. In a stunning display of relevance for some gag webcomic/manga/anime, considering the controversy surrounding the subject, and specifically Japan’s teaching (or lack thereof) of such matters, China’s back is shown to be heavily scarred from the results of Japan’s “betrayals”, after being initially raised by his older brother.
Episode to Watch: Episode 4. In this episode Japan signs the Triparte Pact even though he’s having trouble comprehending German and Italian culture, Japan’s commercialism is explored along with its new U-Boat design (which comes in multiple colours and combine to form a giant robot).
Hetalia often goes for the cheap gag (especially in the dub) and so this is often the case with America. Its perceived cultural vanity, obesity problems and self-centred insularity are all on full display. I’m sure most Americans are familiar with these jibes, whether they feel they’re deserved or not. But America, the character, is also hard working and strong. He puts himself in the middle of things because of his drive to be involved. His exhortations of being the hero may irritate the other Allies, but it stems from America’s desire, as the youngest ally, to be accepted and considered a mature country by his peers.
Even if you’re irked by the idea of America’s world map consisting of only a map of the United States, America also holds the traits that some Americans like to see in themselves: a love of liberty, a righteous strength and a positive attitude combined with a belief in itself, even if he always promises that tomorrow he will finally start going to the gym.
Episode to Watch: Episode 9. America comes up with his plan for the Allies, in which everyone else gets to play the role of sidekick. Luckily, a surprising show of maturity stops his unresolved sexual tension with the UK from spiralling out of control.
Hetalia: Axis Powers videos can be viewed at Funimation’s official website. The first two seasons of the show (episode 1 through 52) is also now available on Netflix for instant streaming to your receptacle of choice.