[12 October 2010]
If you wandered around ComicCon or any of the other large-scale comic conventions this year, you may have noticed anime fans dressed in uniforms holding banners with the name and flag of various countries listed on it. For readers who either don’t read Japanese or prefer not to indulge in pirated “scanalation” editions of manga, you might have wondered about the genesis of this new costumed phenomenon. Well, those questions have all been answered as Hetalia has finally been released in English for western readers.
The series by Hidekaz Himaruya, which began as a Japanese webcomic before being picked up by Tokyopop, features various anthropomorphized characters who act as a type of human manifestation of a specific country. Hetalia (Italy) is the nominal protagonist; a cowardly and childlike nation who is constantly being abused by the other nations, his older brothers, and is a perpetual nuisance for his ever-changing allies.
The most striking thing about Hetalia is its ambitious setup and its unique position at the nexus point where satire, allegory, and audacity all meet. The series runs the risk of offending some readers; it’s oversimplification of complex geopolitical events in history, and its use of stereotypes to illustrate the various countries (such as Italy always whining for pasta) may alienate some. However, the use of allegorical representation to discuss conflicts between nations, while admittedly reductionist, is not only a valid interpretation of these events; but also reflected in the historiography of the subject.
European history in particular has often discussed the conflicts and rivalries that existed both in and outside the various nations of the Old World using the vocabulary and imagery of the family as an appropriate metaphorical framework to provide context. The wars and shifting alliances that typified modern history, most obviously in Europe, have all the pettiness and sometimes ridiculousness of an inter-familial squabble. The French Revolution has been deconstructed by historian Lynn Hunt as the mother overthrowing the proverbial father in French Society.
The United States’ War of Independence against the British Empire has been framed by others as a type of Oedipal patricide, with the son killing the father so that he could usurp his roll. Himaruya’s series is able to capture all the centuries of dynastic and interpersonal conflict in a way that has a ring of truth to it despite its often cartoonish representations of the various participants.
Framed in this light Hetalia’s use of allegory is not as simplistic as might originally appear. The use of stereotypical representations of the various nations, while eyebrow raising to some who might balk at the cartoonish version of their homeland, only serves to further the satire and extend the metaphor. Himauya is not turning the nations of the world into petty children; the author is revealing them for what they really are. The series is not a caricature: it’s an argument that contends that these petty little people squabbling over petty little things are in fact the ultimate reality.
Despite the sophisticated structure and the compelling setup, the finished product of Hetalia leaves something to be desired at times. The majority of the stories—often just short four panel vignettes—don’t capitalize on their full potential and instead are left just telling sitcom-esque parodies replicating the awkward social situations that occur when people from different cultures meet. There are a few moments that hint at a larger plan for the characters, and that reveal the true potential for brilliance. The moment when a victorious America looks at a defeated England after the Revolutionary War and remarks with some despair, “…you used to be…so big…” Or the issue when Germany goes South to find and defeat the heir of the Roman Empire.
Yet these moments of poignancy did not appear in the first volume as often as one might hope. This is not to say that the various strips are not enjoyable – in fact the almost offensive representations of certain countries are oddly endearing at times – but it sometimes seems that an awful lot of mental energy went into creating some rather pedestrian gags. Other moments use visual tropes and memes that are typical in manga but that some readers might find inscrutable at times. Despite these deficiencies however, Hetalia has a novelty and almost inexplicable charm that many readers will no doubt find compelling.