I got another chance to write again for the national broadsheet, The Manila Bulletin. This time though, I took a chance to sit through my thoughts about one of my favorite web comics to date, Hidekaz’ Himaruya’s Axis Powers Hetalia.
Walking the thin line between humor and oppression: Hidekaz Himaruya’s Axis Powers Hetalia
By Khursten Santos
Comics are nice cheap fun. Rarely do we take comics seriously for their content, enough to make us laugh and smile for a day.
But there are some that just poses questions in our head.
Last year, a friend of mine introduced me to a Japanese web comic shouting “CountryxCountry” relations. I checked the website only to immediately fall in love with it, not only because it is a comic about countries, but also a parody of nations during World Wars I and II.
The comic is called is Axis Powers Hetalia, Hidekaz Himaruya’s hilarious vision of historical international relations.
The story of Hetalia revolves around the three Axis Powers during World War II: Germany, Japan, and Italy. Himaruya leisurely tells the difficulties that Germany and Japan experience for bearing with their useless comrade, Italy.
Stories such as how much Germany always saves Italy when he’s in trouble, how Italy is always the first one to leave in battle, and how much he believes that with pasta, you can survive any war — are some of the jokes throughout the series. Italy’s ineptitude as a military leader garnered him the nickname Hetalia — an abomination of the name Italia and the Japanese word for ‘useless’, hetare.
Of course, how can there be a war if it’s just the three of them? Eventually, Himaruya-san expands his Hetalia empire and adds the Allied Powers (America, Great Britain, France, and Russia) and other countries that caught the snare of the World War. Only when these characters were added did Himaruya’s Hetalia did become a true international affair. Now you can say you have the whole world at war in her comic.
The comedy of Hetalia rides on Himaruya’s understanding of national stereotypes and historical facts. It does not help that Himaruya draws these nations as soldiers in battle.
For example, Germany has a strict demeanor yet occasionally acts crazy when he’s drunk from beer. Then there is America, who acts typically American with his sense of heroism and love for burgers. Britain is tight-lipped and often sarcastic. And Japan is steeped in tradition and order. When these nations interact with each other in his panels, Himaruya takes these stereotypes to her head and imagines hilarious conversations exchanged during particular points in history.
It helps if you have a base knowledge of a nation’s stereotype because it makes things tons funnier than it already is. If you have traveled or encountered foreigners of the same nationalities as those in Hetalia, you might find their attitudes strikingly similar and real.
Himaruya’s conception of these characters and how he makes them interact make this work brilliant. It is not hard to imagine Italia as a guy who loves to greet other people with kisses. It’s not hard to imagine France throwing roses with his sheepishly perverted grin. It’s not hard to imagine Russia drunk over vodka. Mix these stereotypes together and you have one hilarious comic.
There was one comic strip I read which immediately made me cry laughing with the series. The story goes that Germany has taken Italy as his prisoner during World War I. During that imprisonment, Germany was surprised with how Italy was completely unfazed with the situation and just rolled around the floor eating sausages and dreaming about pasta so much so that it irritated Germany, who proceeds to kick him out of prison.
The strip is an oversimplified representation of Italy’s defeat against the unified Austrian and German armies in Caporetto during World War I. Of course, Himaruya does not detail the war but rather banked on that one little detail and made a funny comic about it.
Himaruya’s ability to find humor in a historical event is a mark of his genius.
As a teacher of mine once said, it takes great understanding and wisdom to make something funny out of a tragedy. And the World Wars were such a tragedy that it’s hard to chronicle it with a smile on your face.
At most, you can smile faintly, or have a terrified grin once you toiled through readings. But there are those who are brave enough to show us the lighter side of the war. We’ve seen it in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful and now we also see it in Hidekaz Himaruya’s Hetalia.
Yes, what is amazing about Hetalia is how you can actually laugh and poke fun at the nations as they plot their military conquests and fail over during these World Wars. Sometimes Himaruya presents it in such a way that you actually forget the tragedy of the situation that you just laugh at what she presents to you in a platter. It is that funny. It is a comic after all. It’s not supposed to make you think too much.
But for this girl who spent four years of her life studying history, it’s hard not to put two and two together and notice a little problem in this comic. It makes you forget. And that’s never good for history.
What is troubling with Hetalia is how it tries to dilute the meaning of an event because the author gives priority to the punchline more than the event at hand.
Those who understand what historical event he’s referring to would immediately connect the two together and see that event in a new light. And this is where I find the comic amazing and notable at times.
However, for those who are unaware of it, they could take the comic at face value and believe things happened that way. That Japan was simply a rude and selfish boy that he just took advantage of China. That Lithuania has a penchant for suffering.
The ease in reading this comic, along with the historical notes of the author can easily make the readers take the comic as the truth and just accept it. Many of my generation who would rather read something funny about a war rather than read 50 pages on a tragic battle. Some might even comment, “Oh it’s because France is such a pervert and he thrives in bringing England pain.”
For the uneducated, Hetalia has the ability oppress the historical meaning of an event. And that is sad because as much as Hetalia is funny, it is historically flawed and not all people can recognize this. It’s upsetting to see the reactions of people on how they forget the reasons behind some of Hetalia’s panels. How can you easily laugh at Lithuania’s scars? Or how can you love Russia so much for his sadistic tendencies? In our lifetime, marred visions of history have brought about thousands of flawed revolutions asking for the wrong things and wanting the wrong changes. Hetalia, although it’s only a comic, can have that power to change opinions.
A couple of friends of mine went into a debate trying to put ourselves on how we feel about Hetalia. I for one love it and thinks that Himaruya really did a great job in putting a new perspective to some events in history.
On the other hand, I have friends who are sound in voicing their concerns for the comic. It pushes the line of insult and oppression and I completely understand their concern (even I felt that way for some of her strips). I’ve seen and read how without thinking the comic over, you can easily create prejudices and even build a flawed history about nations.
In my opinion, Hetalia, despite its brilliance as a comic, should be taken with a grain of salt. Behind the humor lie stories, real stories, of peoples and beliefs that are important to our historical being. And it’s the responsibility of the reader to discover these stories, why Himaruya wrote it in this manner and why he presented him in this way.
I think that Hidekaz Himaruya may have presented Hetalia in this manner so that we can question our understanding of history. History is never about the cold facts, names, and dates of people that all of us are accustomed to in our school. History is a living breathing story, being written and rewritten everyday as we discover more and more about our past. One has to note that Hetalia is Himaruya’s own exploration of history. The challenge here is to find our own.
Original Japanese: Axis Power Hetalia
Translated English: Hetalia Livejournal Community