I had wondered if it was just the Hetalia: Paint It White movie that was suffering from a bad case of the ‘What?’, in terms of its pacing, structure and bizarre inanities. Apparently it isn’t. But, having said that, there are some significant benefits to having Hetalia in a series format rather than one drawn-out story.
For those that are unaware, Hetalia is a comedy series which stars personifications of the world’s countries in vignettes that are generally rough allegories of historical events picked throughout time (although mainly focusing on the World Wars), and also a great deal of random irreverence that are completely unrelated to history. There’s no wider story arc other than the simple progression of episodes and introduction of more characters, so unless you’re coming straight into the third season it shouldn’t be challenging to progress through. By this point, there are a lot of characters. Working with countries as a basis actually gives the audience a great advantage with getting to grips with the series, as there are fewer collections of things that we’re more familiar with- at some point in our lives we will probably have heard of most of the names being thrown around, so you’re given a leg up from the beginning. More obscure characters (like Wy and Sealand, which are actually real micronations) take some introduction, but usually this happens as a matter of course during the episode progression anyway.
Hetalia is also completely unserious, by the way. Anyone looking for an intelligent, biting and/or harrowing, naturalistic depiction of World War histories need look elsewhere. It is also not a history lesson. For the most part, Hetalia aims to be easily accessible and visually a very undemanding anime. It’s not made of showpieces or artistic direction. It’s focus is the characters and their caricatured, generally simplistic, but intricate, comedic interactions. Despite being a ‘seinen’ manga, I would almost be tempted to say the Hetalia anime is created more for a female audience, given its bishounen overtones and general softness of animation and pacing. Maybe the demographic appeal in the West is different to Japan; I don’t know. Either way, of the fifty-plus characters currently listed in the ongoing manga, only eight or so are female, and none of these are major players. It actually makes the series an interesting refrain from the majority of girl-heavy animes that are stomping around nowadays to have characters that, to all intents and purposes, are all but genderless despite being pictured as males. Hetalia’s not about ecchi, really, or the sexualised tropes of many animes meant for slightly younger teen audiences. That doesn’t make it mature by itself; the subject nature and… slightly more verbose and allegorical nature of the interactions make it a little more… I would say ‘intellectual’, but that’s diffused considerably by the nature of the series’ presentation. The conversation’s more complex, having depth behind it simply in the countries’ history rather than plot interactions we get to observe, if that makes sense.
Having said that, there are points in the show where it becomes more ‘adult’ in the traditional sense. Mostly crudeness and vulgarity creep in during allusions to various historical practices (such as Japan and Greece discussing naked Spartan training), or Tony the Roswell alien outright and very explicitly swearing at others, or talking about porn. It’s a difficult series to classify as a result; the innocence of the animation can contrast greatly with the events being described as well as the overall tone of the dialogue. In a sense it’s almost the perfect series for a certain section the internet that enjoys these offsets and pays cursory respects to an intelligence bone somewhere along the way, in a very similar way to a lot of ‘Cheezburger’ memes. Laziness is not a substitute for intelligence, however, and for my part I found a lot of Hetalia’s irreverence just too irreverent and random to get comfortable. The episodes themselves are only about five to six minutes long each, and there are twenty-four of them. While the Azumanga Daioh-esque format works well to ingest the anime in small, controllable doses that could easily become addictive, characters don’t really deepen at any point; you just seem them more the same at any given point. In that sense it’s a series with infinite possibilities which could have a great deal of longevity without running dry on ideas for its fans, but it also runs the risk of becoming a soap opera, where you can flit in and out at any point and not really connect with anyone because overall the characters have the same blanket representation with little variance between them, vocally or visually.
The benefit I mentioned earlier to not having a single story arc in Hetalia’s case is that the stories don’t overstay their welcome when they are decent, and you don’t find yourself having to ignore common sense for more than a few minutes at a time. If you chalk the majority of it up to plain old anime weirdness, you’ll likely never feel lost. And with only a hundred and twenty minutes in this entire series (comprising 24 bite-sized episodes), you’ll get a lot of characters and individual stories for your money. Almost like getting a snapshot of the world in under an hour and a half, if the world was entirely populated by inoffensive, mildly racist cultural memes.
I didn’t listen to the English dub, having had my fill of bad accent impressions on Paint It White. The downside to the Japanese audio, in a sick twist of irony, is that the characters lose a great deal of their individuality by making them all speak the same language. So while I had initially degraded the dub experience, it does help add a certain vocal colour to the pieces which would likely add more depth to the scenes, which was my earlier complaint. I just can’t bring myself to do that. And anyway, the chibi ‘Hetalia’ eyecatches that break up the episodes are too cute in Japanese not to listen to.
The DVD package by Manga is well-presented and adorned with decent extras, including commentaries, textless openings and endings, and outtakes. And for getting the whole series on one disc, for a Hetalia fan you can’t go wrong. Heck, even for non-fans you’re getting a decent deal, although there’s no real marker for the beginning of the season as it’s a continuous presentation, There is a mild segue for the next DVD to continue from, though. For newbies, I’d recommend trying Season One first and seeing if it’s your cup of tea before jumping straight in here.
Hetalia World Series – Season Three Collection is released on 23rd July 2012 by Manga Entertainment. You can pre-order this at Amazon UK HERE.
– Hugo Jackson