Hetalia: Adorable, Silly, but Is It Too Stereotypical?
Hetalia begins its first two seasons as Hetalia: Axis Powers, and the third season is called Hetalia: World Series. Hetalia: Axis Powers takes place during World War 2, with some historical flashbacks. World Series involves more of a look at the countries in modern times, has more flashbacks into earlier history, and showcases the lives of more characters. There is also a movie called Hetalia: Paint it White, which deals with the main characters fighting off an alien invasion. The anime is based on a webcomic by Hidekazu Himaruya.
In Hetalia, all characters are anthropomorphic representations of countries, each one battling for dominance over others. However, at the same time, each one is often confronted with their own weaknesses and flaws. The show explores real (based on historical evidence) and imagined relationships between countries with bold, creative, hilarious new twists.
The main countries are:
Italy, weak and cowardly, but a good boy with a gentle heart. The main character and titular character. Loves music and art.
Germany, a strong, stoic man who is fearless in battle. He takes care of Italy even though Italy is nothing but a headache for him and acts as sort of a Gilligan to all of his plans for military conquest.
Japan, who often experiences culture shock when meeting Western countries, has an odd relationship with America and England, and often politely refrains from speaking even in situations that make him feel tense or uncomfortable, and often has difficulty expressing his true feelings.
France, a partying, wild, bishie with wavy blonde hair who would pretty much sleep with anything and enjoys making other characters sexually uncomfortable.
England, a serious young man who likes spying on the enemy. He seems to have strange powers and the ability to see paranormal creatures, such as Japan's kappa. He also has these weird, bushy eyebrows. Often the only sane person when other countries' conflicts escalate out of control. He often bickers with France, but gets along well with many other countries, even though he finds America arrogant.
America, bold and adventurous, his catch phrase is "I'm the hero!". Gets along well with Japan despite various cultural differences, is friends with England as well. He has a friend/pet, Tony, who is a grey alien he's been keeping ever since the Roswell incident.
China, who I thought was a woman at first due to his long hair and motherly-seeming attitude toward Japan and other countries. However, China's a dude, as in this series the only girls are weaker or smaller countries, not full superpowers (examples include Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine, Lichtenstein, and Belgium). As a feminist, this bugs me a little. China is also sometimes the "only sane man" character in many comedic situations. He has the advantage of having a Chinatown everywhere in the world, even apparently on remote desert islands.
Other important countries to the show are Austria, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Spain, Greece, and many other smaller European countries. Tiny countries such as Sealand and Lichtenstein also play a role in the show's story at times, as do historical countries that no longer exist (The Holy Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, and the Teutonic Knights, for example) because there are numerous historical flashbacks.
The story is a sit-com style plot that jumps around in history quite a bit. Every character is an anthropomorphic representation of a country, including all the stereotypes that go with being that country. For example, America pigs out on unhealthy food and always wants to be the hero. China has a pet panda. Canada is the same as America except for a pet baby polar bear, and no one pays him any attention. France is charming and the fashion icon for the whole word, but also a pervert, England argues with him all the time, is the brains of the Allies side and an expert at espionage, etc. Every country represents both the best and the worst stereotypes associated with that country.
Hetalia: Axis Powers takes place just before, after, and during World War II, but avoids the heavier topics associated with that time period, making the wars look like a joke. The name "Hetalia" is a portmanteau of the Japanese words "hetare" (useless/inept) and "Italia" (Italy). The plot focuses mainly on Germany's relationship to Italy, whom he adopts when he finds the little guy lost in a tomato crate. Since then, Italy's military weakness and cowardice drag down strong, stoic Germany's war efforts. In other words, it's like history but cuter, funnier, less gory. A lot of the humor comes from playing Germany's toughness and stoicism off of Italy's... not those things.
We also see how Italy and Germany relate to Japan, France, America, England, and a whole host of other countries. We also learn that Italy is actually only northern Italy, Veneziano. The other Italy, Romano, is his brother. Both are descended from "Grandpa Roman Empire" and were raised by Spain. Romano, however, was nowhere near as nice of a boy as Italy, he was always hot-tempered, demanding, and disrespectful to his elders.
The show's main strong points are that it is very funny, and at times it is also educational. The humor was mostly character-based, like in Garfield. Hetalia is simply a string of jokes at the expense of the various anthropomorphic representations of countries.
If you like that kind of humor, this is the show for you. It has very many of the typical insults and jokes you might expect about various countries. Sometimes this gets stale after a while. The cast is mostly male, and a lot of the countries are cute guys. Most episodes are only 5 minutes long, and since the story is told without much of a continuous sequential narrative, it's possible to watch this show out of order, which I like. It's like any other sitcom or comic strip in format: The characters are somewhere, doing something, when stuff happens, and then the episode ends with a punchline. It shouldn't be taken too seriously, and I never saw it as offensive, even though it heaps on jokes about nationality.
One thing to keep in mind here is that the Japanese don't notice race as much as they notice nationality, so to them Americans are the same, regardless of ethnicity. This is also very much a story told from a Japanese perspective, you can tell just by the number of times when only China and Japan appear sane and logical. A lot of it isn't necessarily wrong just because it's told from that perspective, but the author gets some things a little off. For example, the reviewer for a UK anime magazine I read noted that there is no lingering hostility between England and America over the Revolutionary War, because that was so long ago. Just keep in mind that this is somewhat culturally biased against the West, and also that it's meant to be humorous, not serious.
I found this show funny enough that I'm glad I picked up some of World Series on DVD at the last convention I attended. I feel that World Series is better than the first seasons. At that point the jokes have evolved, the universe has expanded to where you're not only seeing the same six characters all the time, and the plot has become more interesting dramatically as well.
The humor was a bit juvenile, and heavily reliant on stereotypes as held by the Japanese view of the world, so they have a bit of a problem with joke translation. The dubbed version had some truly horrific accents, but that's actually preferable to the idea that all these countries speak flawless Japanese without a hint of their nation's accent.
At any rate, what I'm saying is that Hetalia is a matter of personal taste. You might find it funny or you might find it offensive, or you might just find it boring. But I did enjoy most of it. Humor is very subjective, but I thought that Hetalia does a pretty good job of being funny.