Walking the thin line between humor and oppression: Axis Powers Hetalia

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.

Hilarious Stereotypes

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.

History Forgotten?

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


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21 thoughts on “Walking the thin line between humor and oppression: Axis Powers Hetalia”

  • It seems like a coincidence that I took AP European History months before I read this book! This book is great and I think knowing more about history actually allows you to enjoy it better.
    Also I have found some people who are “offended” by some of the characters but I dont see the point! Ecspecially in these times I think this is perfect for a really good laugh ecspecially a laugh at your own country. I know while watching America go around eating hamburgers and yelling “Im the hero!” I would think thats so American!(I’m American by the way!)
    Besides my long post I think this was a great review! 🙂

  • I absolutely love Hetalia, for multiple reasons. The fanbase is probably the best I have ever encountered, I have yet to meet a Hetalia fan who is closed minded, and I have learnt a lot of things from all over the world from them. Just the other day I read a fic where Kievan Rus’ was mentioned, and I was like “Kie-what? *goes to borrow history book*” and boom, there I know a little bit about something they never brought up in my history classes! Hetalia and the fans encourage looking up history on your own and to form your own picture of the world.

    I remember Himaruya saying something like, what he writes is satire, and as people say, there is nothing funny in stuff like the holocaust. Now that sentence is speaking for itself without further explanation. But just to fill in, there where some sad moments in Hetalia too, like when we saw those scars on Toris’s/Lithuania’s back. And that short strip about the Russian revolution. That was the only time ever I felt fear of Hetalia’s Ivan/Russia, but at the same time feeling so sad.
    Because the way I see it, the way the characters are portrayed, with all their differences, it is impossible for me to dislike any of them, and it brings a more open and understanding view for different cultures. Noone is completely bad and noone is completely good. We are all human for high heaven!

    This will sound incredibly corny, but this is true for me:
    Hetalia gave me back something I had previously lost; the will to wish for a more peaceful future.

  • I’d like to say (I’m sorry for posting this way after the actual post btw ><), that after only watching the anime and reading some of the comic, even thought I may not be history person, I fully enjoy Hetalia. And, I’m actually thinking about looking up some information on what really happened, and watching it again, just to catch all the other little jokes and humor ^^. Also, it makes fun of everyone, so it’s not like any one nation escapes from it. I’ve actually read a lot of fanfiction, for the characters and their interactions as people ^^.

  • First off, I’d like to say this was a very good read. :3 (And, oh dear, I’m a late commenter. Late by a few months…)

    Secondly, the people I know generally aren’t offended by Hetalia. People find characters like France humorous rather than offensive. I know people from China who’re quite fond of the way their nation is portrayed in the comic, unlike some Koreans, who apparently find their nation-tan insulting. I don’t think there should be as much controversy as there is now, to be honest: Hetalia’s comic, meant to be read and enjoyed. It’s not a history textbook (not that history textbooks can’t be enjoyable). With the countries of the world appearing as cute little chibis half the time, the frivolity here should be dead obvious. XD; It’s clearly not going to be 100% accurate, but (in my case, at least) it’s really increased my interest in world history. I don’t see that as a bad thing.

    Another issue here is the fandom, which sort of takes the original webcomic and expands it into a more complex universe. Most people who come across Hetalia will have found it in webcomic form, so they know how to use the Internet…and will eventually stumble across fanfiction. A lot of the fanfic writers have actually gone and done a lot of research into history, leaving some handy little footnotes at the bottom detailing the historical events. They acknowledge that every country has a darker side, fought wars and committed horrible crimes and such. A good deal of the Hetalia fanfiction explores this. Good stuff. (And it’s usually historically accurate.)

    Long post is long. ;3; Again, enjoyed reading your post. <3

  • I have seen fans complaining about why there is no personification for their nations & so on~

    Fellow fans, you need to remember that Himaruya has only one brain & a pair of hands~ *smiles* If you really want to see your nations or certain historical event in Hetalia style, why don’t you try & create yourself? Himaruya is merely providing us a platform & it is up to we fans to be creative~~

    Hetalia is just a starting point for a journey of history~ There is a long way for you to go & you need to walk in your own path~

    But now you’ve known that history is not boring, history can be fun~ *smiles*

    “One has to note that Hetalia is Himaruya’s own exploration of history. The challenge here is to find our own.”

    One of my favourite quotes for Hetalia~~^^

    PS, That is why I think that Hetalia has one of the best fanbase I have ever seen~ It is always nice to see how Hetalia has inspired loads of fan creation~ & how fans are doing their best to understand history in a whole new way because of Hetalia~

    *******

    A thumbs up for your brilliant post~ Thank you for sharing your opinion with us~~ *smiles*

    “History should be forgiven, but history should be remembered.”
    I guess this is what Hetalia teaches us.

    *******

    PS, Shame to say, I am one of the fans who actually treat the nations in Hetalia as a character instead of a personified nation… OTL (England in Hetalia is not just England, for me he is Arthur Kirkland, if you get what I mean XD)

  • I understand your general concerns about Hetalia and, in fact, I feel the same way. Hetalia’s allowed me to find a new way of remembering random historical facts and has put a new spin, but I know not to take everything at face value – when presented with something about history I didn’t know (i.e. Teutonic Knights, Lithuania in general) I go and research it.

    Well written I must say, thanks <3

    Oh, and Himaruya-sensei is a male “]

  • Hetalia actually inspires me to learn more real history ^__^ I’ve learned a lot more about the subject through Hetalia (in the form of being inspired to do research, that is) than I would have alone.

    And that’s why I love Hetalia.

  • The main Allied Powers includs China; just don’t miss it, cuz every force played an important role in that war, let alone China has become a permanent membership of the UN security council afterwards.

  • To be perfectly honest, I enjoyed every single Hetalia comic. I read it purely for entertainment purposes and I am amazed that ppl are getting sensitive and angry over inaccurate or glossed over parts in Hetalia.

    Is it really that important if the ignorant who read Hetalia and really assume that the stereotypes potrayed are 100% true? Because even w/o Hetalia they’ll always be ppl who assume stereotypes potrayed to be 100% true after watching movies, tv or any form media, be it accurate or not!

    I’ve read Hetalia knowing that all tragedies/bloody wars throughout real-world history will be potrayed in a very light-hearted manner and it has interested me to go find out more about how history really happened – and let me tell you, I’ve never really been interested in history bcos I find it depressing.

    Last but not least, if ppl really assume that what potrayed in Hetalia is like 100% accurate, then the world needs a better education system.

  • I have read translated hetalia manga…
    Well this manga represents coutnires by stereotped people and the manga is based on historical events
    I minght be too overeacting to this manga but I think I should say this:

    Sorry to say this but, I’m very frustrated of author’s lack of world relationships and history issues
    This comic positively represents or make sterotype of country; but the way he make personification of countires frustrates me.
    The author intend to make positive appearance of his own country, specifically Japan. (Japan kun has nice relationships with every countries except China and Korea)
    The author makes negative appearance of other countries, for example, France and U.K is appeared as pervert, Canada only appears with U.S etc…

    note 1. I like hetalia comic and want to see hetalia anime, i’m not offence of it
    but i’m worried about haxuloxcaust issue and other side of war crimes that had hurt people’s feelings in wwii
    if some jexwish people looks this comic, they might feel(I hope there isn’t otaku jewish people who reads comics)
    bad…

  • Ugh, that’s so sad that people are so up tight these days (well, I guess they’ve been like that always, but still) and that picture… -sudders- I wanted to smack her XD

    Glad to hear my post didn’t bore you! 😀

    (And just an edit on my part:

    China’s capital = Bejing, NOT Bangkok XD; My mistake! I always get those two mixed up;;; )

  • @Cassandra and Melissa, thank you for visiting!

    I would love to think that people in the Hetalia fandom are mature enough to put a lot of things into consideration when reading and would come up with the same conclusions as we do. There are those who think of it like we do, that this is a comic and a funny way to represent nations.

    However, I’ve also seen it as a passing internet fancy that has skewed the way some fans view the comic. orz. It’s quite disappointing when you see really really discriminating reactions from these fans. I for one found this reaction from a fan disappointing. And I pray that in time, she’d probably change her view of people and history.

    @Melissa, don’t worry. 🙂 Long posts are much appreciated~ <3 And these valid points as well. <3

    Thanks for sharing your opinions everyone! \o/

  • To start off, this was a very good read! I think you caught exactly the right words to describe this amazing little comic to both those new or associated with Axis Powers Hetalia, so kudos to you! <3

    On another note, I think I agree with you on how those uneducated on the events these plots take place are not getting the full picture. I mean, just the other day I was introduced to the pathetic Italy in the comic and was downright laughing since I had been taught of the events of WWII and Mussolini’s pathetic attempt of being a strong part of the war (and no offence, Mussi, but you really were the punchline of all dictators XD ). But to those who haven’t yet reached this part of history or never will (or aren’t as big as a History dork as I) probably will not find it as amusing and the comic may lose some of it’s comedy due to that.

    One point I did not agree on was that it can be insulting or create prejudices. We’ve (as in all the countries that were involved and what not) all grown since those horrid times that we should have enough maturity as a world together to get past some of the sterotypes or little jokes and just laugh. Now I can imagine some of the jokes or comments she leaves about her work could strike a nerve: such as Russia being more evil than the cursed Busby Stoop Chair, China making cheap imitations of beloved cartoon characters, or American ghosts being “flashy and wanting attention even after death”. But honestly, we should at least laugh at how sterotypical it is, be humble or at least admit some of these facts are true (America: We know we’re attention hogs and love sticking our noses into other people’s buisness, it’s a habit not all of us are proud of; Russia: It’s not evil, but in truth it’s rather intimidating and has not had the best reputation [with both other countries and its own people]; China: They do make cheap imitations of everything. I have personally witnessed this when visiting Bangkok. it’s pretty bad ).

    Though in the end it’s a comic and all it’s ment is to bring humor. If it’s too insulting to someone they could choose not to read it. If the person reading it has had no background information on the evenets but enjoy the comic, let them do so! Obviously this work can’t replace text books, but if it at leasts gets someone INTERESTED in the past of other countriesand the events… isn’t that a good thing?

    I don’t think it really should be taken too seriously (Hell, why am I writing an entire essay/comment on it then?! XD) and let’s hope that others will see this too and not take it so personally.

    (Phew) Anyway, good write, keep it up! Hope I didn’t kill your eyes from such a long post!;

  • I stumbled on this a few days ago but I can hardly find the scanlations so I appreciate the link.

    yeah, this is an interesting comic, but I don’t worry too much about the way it alters history -comedy, if it does not offend, doesn’t affect folks as much. Basically I feel that it has a part in this story. Doesn’t help that the characters are at least in part based on stereotypes >_<

    Also, considering there are still prejudices hanging around it may do people good to see other countries in another light, to at least expose people to something other than a sense of “otherness” that many people may feel around those of other nations. I mean…I’ve never seen something like this before, and I’d like to give it a chance before I make assumptions, you know?

  • I’d like to read this, but I’m in the US and I haven’t heard of it. Do you know if there’s any way I could read this on the internet? It sounds really good, although as you said, thr steretypes might offend some. I’d like to see for myself.

    Thanks!

  • Yeah. I heard about the animation. I think the reception’s really great, but again, especially with Japan’s knack for information buffering when it comes to history, this might touch up a lot of sensitivities.

    For one, I heard that some of the strip in the recently published version of the webcomic were changed. ;3; Makes you wonder, really…

    Thanks for reading. And wow… that was quick response. (*w* )

  • What a great post. I’d heard about this but never bothered to figure out what the deal was. I’m definitely going to take a look at it now though I’ll have to brush up on my history first.

    Oh and you may already know this but it was announced a while ago that Studio Deen are turning it into an anime. I’m pretty sure this will be one title we can count on never, ever being licensed.

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