A Soft Defense of Axis Powers: Hetalia from an Old Hetalia Fan

When the news broke that we’d be getting a new Hetalia animated series in 2021, I wanted to be happy. I wanted to celebrate and relive my glory days in a fandom that came to define so much of my life but I didn’t feel like I could. Over the years, the anime and the fandom that surrounds it has been a, to be honest, mostly deserved problematic mess due to the series’ subject matter and what some in the fandom do. But, some bad apples were never meant to spoil the bunch and thus, I write to you all, a small defense of Hetalia from one old fan who wants to taste glory again. 

It was college, my first year and my first time really being away from friends and family for an extended period of time. I was alone, struggling and felt overwhelmed and afraid. My mental health was in the trash bin and I mostly suffered quietly reassuring my aunts and mom that I was fine and making friends when in all honesty I mostly ate lunch alone in my dorm and had to wait for my two roommates to be out of the room to do anything that I actually liked doing. This was before the Glorianna of my junior and senior years running the anime club and was me at my worst: isolated, insecure and overwhelmed. I had given up a lot of my anime and manga in the transition to college, desperately hoping that the intense fandoms I held in my “youth” would be the phase my aunt asserted it would be. I went to college trying to pretend like that part of me didn’t exist and failed in the second part of the semester. I was back into anime due mostly to a slate of series that would end up becoming formative to me thanks to RP and my then best friend, Nicole. It was thanks to her that I was brought into a little series called Axis Powers: Hetalia. Hetalia is a play on words for the Japanese words for useless and Italia for Italy. The series features around personified countries during mostly World War II but also has some other periods of time mentioned throughout history and modernity. The series mostly centers around the Axis Powers: Northern Italy, Germany and Japan and their struggle against the Allied Powers: England, France, America, China, Russia and whoever else decides to join them for the sake of narrative. 

You can see the inherent issue, right? Japan has a long history with not seeing WWII so much as a bad thing but a strangely fun part of history. To this day you can see people in Waffen SS uniforms for the sake of style and clout just walking around. Japan’s problematic love-love relationship with Germany and Nazi paraphernalia is not something I have time to go into in full here, but needless to say; Hetalia suffers majorly from the bias of a Japanese man who wrote a comic as a racist joke while he was living in New York and continued on to impress upon the world his biased history of the world. Taken as writ, Hetalia is kawaii propaganda and I loved every second of it. 

The countries have dynamic character designs and personalities: the history is loose but hey, that’s not why I was there. I was sold from day one. I had characters I fell in love with, ships I wanted to sail and navigate and more importantly, it gave me something to do with my time. See, Hetalia, for having such a weak plot has a ton of trivia attached to it. Each country has a human name, a birthday, things they like and don’t like and complex relationships not just tied to history. There are character songs, drama CDs, each country has their own version of the ending theme song not to mention at least 2 character songs that can tell you so much about them and their history that you’ll never learn in the main series of manga. There were interactive flash games, the original webcomic and oh the fandom flourished.

Hetalia is the best kind of series for fangirls active in the shipping arts; it’s sort of a boy’s love by omission. Most of the female characters are so weakly written that they don’t matter and most of the countries are male and often enter marriages or alliances with each other or have very close bonds with each other due to shared history. You could, in theory, make an argument for any ship and likely there was historical, social or political context for it beyond just the show putting them in a scene together. Immediately, I was enraptured. I spent time learning human names and birthdays (many of which I still know to this day), learning and translating character songs and writing; oh the writing. I carved up the map with my friends, laying claim to countries and taking a masturbatory pride in whose flag we claimed. The flags I flew and still do fly to this day are: France and Austria but I laid claim to many other countries. The series was exactly what I needed to help me connect to others.

But immediately, upon entering the wider fandom outside of my friend group; I was met with a group of mostly young girls that…well, let’s just say weren’t always on their best behavior. Now, I’m not here to shame DFW Hetalia: but their tactics to abuse badges is why so many panelists have to go through hell now to get badges for their volunteers; not to mention their clichy nature and less than high regard for public spaces: they were sharks in bad wigs. The rest of the fandom…well, let’s just say that the stories, no matter how horrible, are often true. Many have kept the Nazi parts of their uniforms on screeching that it’s costume accurate. Some have posed in front of concentration camps…some have done other Nazi stuff. I can’t believe I’m writing this. Honestly, I was never shocked by this behavior mostly because most anime fans are already so culturally abandoned as Americans that we’d willingly side with literally any other country and the narrative as writ in Hetalia that Japan only joined the Axis Powers to make new friends. Hetalia also does a very smart narrative trick where it asserts that the countries as we see them are more representatives and they have “bosses” (the leader du jour) that really control their movements. So Germany didn’t do a Holocaust, Germany’s boss (Hitler) did. It’s a great narrative tool: it keeps the characters sympathetic: like a good German soldier, Germany was just following orders. 

To be clear, the bulk of the fandom isn’t running around as a bunch of cosplay fascists but the stories of bad behavior are hard to wipe away from the collective memory of the fandom and con world. Not to mention the real life consequences behind acting poorly. Think about the current angst that comes with being a fan of Harry Potter right now. It’s hard to distance yourself from the author’s objectively bad words and keep yourself steadily in the lane of fandom that doesn’t deny basic human rights to trans people. But now it feels almost dirty to be a Hetalia fan. The series has its own problematic elements if you ignore the less than perfect fandom and the less than perfect fandom is fed because the series is built on a problematic base. The rest of Hetalia centers around other world events and the movie doesn’t even talk about WWII. There is more to the series than its problematic base, but that will always be its foundation. It will always be a webcomic created by a man who clearly loves WWII and not so subtle casual racism and xenophobia.

But I’m still excited. I have made so many friends and made so many memories and got so much joy from this series. I was, and am, still a very proud Francis Bonnefoy and proud of the ships I sail. I’m proud of the headcanons and spirited conversations I’ve had. I’m proud of the nights I’ve spent up translating drama CDs and the pieces of trivia that are still in my mind a decade later. I’m still proud to be a fan of Hetalia but I am also so very aware of how very damaged this beautiful world I call home is. 

Make Voice Actors Sing Again

There was one point in my extended complaining about the sub vs. dub debate that didn’t fit neatly into any one category but there’s one place where the sub has always meant a great deal to me and that’s when voice actors really get to have fun either by singing insert, opening or closing themes or the more rare and beautiful art of the drama CD. 

Now, where do I get off “demanding” voice actors become singers? Well, I don’t. I do absolutely think that they’re two different skill sets. I can’t expect a voice actor to sing and I can’t expect a singer to voice act: look at American movies hiring singers and comedians as VO artists assuming that they can do it with oftentimes mixed results. Sometimes we get a Seki Tomokazu who can do both or a Masaya Onasaka who likes taking any chance he can to sing but you can’t always expect for a trained voice over artist to want to be a singer as well. But there is a beautiful power in the moments when that expectation is met. I want to talk about the moments when voice actors using their talents can only add to a piece because I am old and back in my day, such things weren’t as rare. 

If you look at the Bleach drama CDs and character CDs, it was all the voice actors singing their character’s songs (at least, that can be said for the Japanese voice cast) and doing the little skits that made the CDs such a worthwhile buy! Did I need Szayel and Captain Kurotsuchi doing The Science Show? No, but my life is richer for it. Did I need Hanataro Desu? Nope, but I’m so glad to know about my least favorite favorite soul reaper. 

I also really love when voice actors sing opening/closing themes. Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE features a closing theme sung by the Conquest Club and it adds so much more to the narrative when it’s the main villain singing about a long lost relationship because that long lost relationship is (spoiler alert) the crux of the entire plot of the damn show. The same goes for the little insert song in Sarazanmai for getting rid of desire through weird butt stuff: it makes so much more sense that the voice actors sing that song because when the perspective changes (like when it’s Reo trying to save Mabu) it’s so much more valid; it’s his song, his moment. Last example I’ll use is one that’s very fluffy which is Free! because yes, I can tell the difference between all the voice actors and I love the outfits in Splash Free!. It’s just fun. 

Insert and character songs can provide a lot of important information, though, as well as some of the sketches in drama CDs. Its in the drama CDs for Axis Powers: Hetalia that we learn all the countries’ human names and that Prussia lives in Poland’s basement, that England has a tattoo, that Austria is afraid of sea life and so many other facts because I have given up too much of my life to Hetalia knowledge and if I must suffer, you all must suffer, too. Also, stop ignoring France’s birthday, he’s still really sad about it. 

Those CDs are so fun because all the voice actors came back for it and get to tell us this information and seeing it as a DVD extra where it’s just voice actors having fun is inspiring. Hetalia also features something that a lot of newer series have lacked in places where if the country does not match the actor’s country of origin (I’m trying to be polite) that the actor knows enough of that language to make words make sense be it Chinese, French, English or German. Funimation tried their best when they dubbed the series and it was bad. 

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think American voice actors have fun. Here’s where we’re gonna pause because we have to talk about some news.

Initially, when I was writing this post an entire kerfuffle happened over at Funimation where it was found out that some voice actors dubbed over some questionable stuff in character and…well, I’m going to be honest: I’m of two minds about this. The whole reason I wanted to write this post was actually because of a panel I went to with Spike Spencer years ago where he showed a clip of an outtake video he did for Neon Genesis Evangelion where he riffs for a while as Shinji and it’s one of the funniest things to me on the internet. I’ve always admired voice actors having fun. 

So when I first started listening to the Funimation VA nonsense, it didn’t read as that bad. Voice actors do weird stuff like that all the time whether it’s read fanfic or just riff and oftentimes, those clips go into outtakes and are celebrated and praised. 

Here’s where I can agree with the people who were angry post the Funimation VA brouhaha: the content of much of what was dubbed was explicit, crass, politically incorrect and allowed voice actors to use language that is just not acceptable and to discuss themes that are, to be polite, not for everyone. If the content of what was acted offends, I can’t help but understand. Personally, I’ve been on the internet so long that very little shocks me anymore and I mostly just thought it was voice actors having fun: rude and crass fun, but fun. The way it was handled left a lot to be desired and I won’t shame anyone who had a problem with this whole darn affair. Hell, the entire affair put this post on hold.

But I don’t think having fun means being offensive. We could have a whole other post on the fact that people think comedy is dead because of PC culture and this Funimation VA scandal did make me wonder if it was generational. Most of the older fans I knew didn’t have an issue with it; many of us found it funny. It did seem to be younger fans who had a problem with it and maybe its because the newer fans just don’t understood VAs spend too much time in the booth and sometimes that means weird stuff is going to happen. Again, I’m not here to say you aren’t entitled to being offended, but out of all the scandals going on at Funimation, this seemed like one that we didn’t need to focus on.

Some of my favorite convention memories are of me being in costume and reading fanfic in character. Some of my favorite panel moments are watching those outtakes. Some of the information I’ve retained for years has been because voice actors (both Japanese and American) got to have fun for a little while.

I don’t know why American voice actors never really picked up singing. I don’t know why it never really took off: to be honest, I don’t think many of the American voice actors are on the level to handle some of the song chops that the Japanese voice actors do…but there is one example that pains me to discuss because it means talking about Dirty Uncle Vic.

I don’t want to talk about Vic. I really don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want to keep giving him attention and we’ll leave it at I believe all the women who have claimed he’s a monster because it’s what my brothers and sisters in craft have been saying for years. But goddammit, we have to talk about Brothers. Brothers is an insert song in the original Fullmetal Alchemist and when its first sung, it’s in some weird fairy language and you know it’s haunting but unless you find a translation, you don’t know why. So when Vic as Ed translates and sings the song and gives you the powerful lyrics as if they were a ballad or lullaby Ed sings to his brother just…it’s almost too damn good. And you get this song as their childhood home burns and I can absolutely feel all of Ed’s pain. I hate praising Vic but this is good and I have to remove him as a garbage person from the fact that he was pretty much made for this role and literally has done nothing good since then as a voice actor or human person. 

When voice actors sing, it can take a mediocre scene and increase the impact nearly to the max and even if its a little clumsy; it just adds so much more bang for the buck. It’s a worthwhile effort, and one I would love to see return.