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"Axis Powers Hetalia Season 2 (UK Edition)" Loses a Little Something In Translation

by on April 11, 2011

Axis Powers Hetalia has a fairly novel concept. Every country in the world has a human avatar, a personification of its national identity, and their interactions mirror those of the countries themselves. The story primarily focuses on the World War II era. Germany is crumbling under the pressure, helped only a little by his well-meaning but ineffective friend, Italy, who is a constant target for the mish-mash Allies.

It’d be very easy to be offended by such a concept, especially given that the series (which originated as a webcomic) comes from one of the former Axis powers. However, the concept is handled surprisingly well. History is messy. Terrible things have happened, are happening and will happen later. In the midst of all this relations between individual countries are ever shifting. Hetalia portrays this by showing that none of the characters have an arguably true friendship, just alliances that are subject to the whim of their nations. But at the same time this is the strength of the portrayal. Whilst there’s a minor degree of stereotyping, the characters instead are more based on the concept at the heart of their country. A prime example of this is Germany, who despite being ambitious and short-tempered is implied to carry a great sadness for how cut off he feels from the rest of the international community, the logic in part being that he seemingly carries great grief for the terrible acts the people of his country are committing at the time and that things were ever able to reach this point. The result is that a series which could choose to promote segregation further instead continuously highlights how similar all humanity is and that really nations are just invisible walls.

Although the initial concept of the series focuses on the era of World War II, the show frequently jumps back and forth through time. This enables it to poke fun fairly at all nations. Episodes highlight England’s tendency to support anyone who is against France; Japan’s famous self-imposed exile is dramatised by portraying him as an unhealthy shut in; America’s misfired attempts at propaganda come in for grief. Just about every nation is fairly ribbed for its highs and lows. It also helps that each episode is roughly 5 minutes long. This stops jokes from running too long, and keeps episodes from suffering dead air.

The show is presented in the common choice of original Japanese or English, and its here that the show loses points with me. There was a time when FUNimation were held in great contempt for their work, but with dedication they’ve managed to emerge as perhaps the industry leader in terms of handling and making a success of foreign releases of Japanese animation that respect the original source. The one area where this doesn’t really hold true is their handling of comedy shows, where they seem to feel the need to tweak the scripts and replace things. Now, sometimes this can work. I doubt Samurai Pizza Cats would be remembered so fondly if a lack of translated scripts hadn’t led to it becoming a gag dub. But in this day and age and coming from a company with a noted reputation for respecting the source material, this isn’t a practice I care for. Hetalia in particular suffers because the style of rewrites is to push things and try to make them more ‘edgy’. The included commentaries reveal the dub staff decided they wanted to make the show closer to South Park, and this is a major misstep. I’ve already covered that the charm of the series is that rather then trap the characters in all-encompassing stereotypes it casts its view wider. This isn’t a sentiment the dub writers share, and so we get jokes like Germany threatening to gas Italy for annoying him. It removes a lot of the more innocent charm from the series and, I would argue, the creators’ original intent. If companies like FUNimation wish to do shows like this, clearly cast in the Adult Swim mold, why not just produce their own show rather then co-opt someone else’s? With some shows fans will cry foul if a single letter is changed in a character name but too few will speak up to ask the same respect be shown to a comic work. The dub can be enjoyed and does have some humour value, but the writers are trying to make it something it’s not. If you don’t trust the material (which I’d argue easily crosses cultural barriers) to sell on its own, don’t license it just so you can tweak it into the show you want to write.

The extras consist of some dub-produced episode commentaries and some Japanese interviews. The commentaries aren’t really worth the time, amounting to little beyond one or two members of the cast and/or crew insisting the show is incredibly offensive and weird. The Japanese extras are a bit more dignified but not really much more interesting. They’re a series of lite-chat interviews that came with the respective Japanese volumes, featuring vague interviews with the director and staff. One even serves little purpose beyond telling Japanese fans of the various limited merchandise they could get if they pre-ordered tickets for the theatrical movie release.

The last extra is a textless ending animation. The ending is indeed infuriatingly catchy but there are several variations sung by different characters, whilst the only version presented is the main one sung by Italy. The visuals stay constant regardless but it would have been nice to have a loop of all the versions back to back.

Hetalia is an interesting work. When dabbling into the history of nations and cultures, it’s very easy to create something that offends. Hetalia instead goes in the other direction, accepting the world we live in isn’t perfect but that it isn’t over yet. We live in a world where we hold as friends countries we once viewed as hated enemies The fact that we’ve made this progress is, as the show points out, a positive sign. We can’t ignore the mistakes that have been made nor the ones that will happen in the future, but we also can’t forget to learn from them and become something better. Hetalia is a fun show with a noble intent and a sly sense of humour. I just wish the licensor could have better seen that.

Hetalia Axis Powers Season 2 (UK edition) can be ordered through Amazon.co.uk.

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