"Make pasta, not war! Forget everything you learned in history class and imagine all the nations of the world as cute guys hanging out on a wildly inappropriate reality show. Now, toss in every stereotype ever and prepare to pledge allegiance to your favourite superpower in Hetalia Axis Powers!"
"Maybe you'll surrender to Italy's charms. He's a sweetie who's always got a noodle in his mouth and he's BFF with blue-eyed Germany and shy Japan. Sounds nice, right? Of course, their friendship sort of causes WWII, but is that really such a big deal? Not if it means those adorable allies France, America and England will be stormin' the beach! No matter who comes out on top, victory is yours! Now ditch your textbooks and try to keep up, because history happens fast in Hetalia Axis Powers!"
That's from the DVD blurb, because I didn't think I could improve on it. Even for anime, that's mad.
It was originally a web comic. Later it became a series of web episodes, which have since spawned a 40-episode follow-up series (World Series) and a movie (Paint it White!
). Unbelievable. I'm particularly intrigued by the latter, because this first Hetalia series has no plot and is just jumping around world history doing gags. Admittedly they have ongoing settings and mini-storylines, but you're not following a story. Often this is very funny, but I must admit I'm not sure whether or not I'll hunt down World Series.
It's the most fragmented show I've ever seen. It makes a virtue of its non-sequiteurs, so that some of its funniest punchlines aren't actually jokes, but simply the show choosing the most inappropriate moment to jump into the closing title sequence. Furthermore it has a cast of any country that's ever existed, including historical ones like the Holy Roman Empire and micronations like Sealand. This is a problem, because the character designs are bland and it'll take you a while to be able to tell even the important people apart. Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia? Switzerland and Lichtenstein? I'm stunned that they're telling stories at this level of geopolitical detail, but still it's hardly making life easier for the audience. It took me long enough to be able to distinguish England, America and France!
Funniest is Italy, who's the title character. "Hetalia" is a portmanteau word, made from "hetare" (useless, pathetic) and "Italia" (guess), which I'm kind of boggled hasn't got Silvio Berlusconi declaring a fatwa or something. You see, the makers of Hetalia are amazing history geeks and they've noticed how much of an impact Italy made on WW2 (i.e. more or less none). They've noticed how often Italian soldiers would surrender. They've observed the difference between the top speed of Italian tank divisions in attack and when retreating from the British. All this goes into this show's characterisation of Italy, which is very, very funny and I wouldn't recommend watching it with anyone who's Italian unless you've first done scientific tests on their sense of humour.
Germany is awesome, too. He has no sense of humour, seems slightly angry all the time and is a perfect fit for the Germanic stereotype of everything by the book and triple-accounted. Imagine this guy as a double-act with his ally Italy.
I wouldn't advise taking any of this too seriously. The show's doing real history, sometimes exceptionally obscure nuggets of it, but in a goofy way. Russia did my head in, for instance. Stalin's blood-soaked Communist dictatorship is a big soft mild-mannered dope in a pink scarf, who wouldn't say boo to a goose. That said they still make him scary, but in a way I hadn't expected. However I also get the impression that most of the countries are being done accurately, albeit frivolously and often divorced from historical context. England, for instance, can't cook, has a peculiar affinity for old tradition and superstitions and has detailed and carefully drawn relationships with France and America. Weird radiator-grille eyebrows, though.
Japan is on the nose, of course, and the show doesn't go any softer on its home nation than it does on anywhere else. Tomoko thought this Japan was exactly right, anyway, and her opinion counts for more than mine.
Incidentally one reason why I'm tempted to watch the sequel, World Series, is that apparently of all the countries portrayed in Hetalia, the only one to take the hump has been Korea. I don't remember seeing them in Axis Powers, so I presume they're somewhere in the follow-up. That should be a laugh.
I laughed more at the earlier, WW2-focused episodes. Those are more coherent and we get more of Italy and Germany. Later on the show gets more scattershot. They also have serious mini-episodes that are trying to have emotional content and aren't a complete failure on this level, but aren't a particularly memorable success either. I liked the episode with England and the kappa, though. It's always watchable in a pisstaking way, but its point is that it's pointless. However on the upside, it's educational.
Overall, it's okay. I quite liked it. Its best episodes are brilliant, but it's only that good in patches and it has longer stretches that are merely sort of amusing. Its main drawback is the character design, although occasionally they figure this out and create designs you'll remember. Ukraine is a girl whose boobs make "boing boing" sounds, while Belarus is a scary anime maid. In fairness in this the anime is merely sticking to the original manga, but that just means it's the manga that needed to try a bit harder. It's worth watching at least a few episodes just to experience the insane series concept, though.