Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Anime review: Axis Powers: Hetalia (season one)

One of the most witty and politically incorrect anime in recent years, Axis Powers Hetalia is for viewers who have done their history homework and understand the inner-working politics that occurred during World War II. It should be noted that this is certainly not a series for viewers who do not appreciate media poking fun at war. The series begins at an unspecified time, though obviously modern day, as all the countries from both the Axis and Allies, as well as a handful of others have joined in a boardroom meeting on the topic of global warming. After some arguing, Italy interrupts with his first very out-of-place “PASTA!!!” yell, and the series backtracks to explain the events leading up to and of WWII itself.

Each character in the series represents a single country (or in some cases, distinct separate regions of a country). The characters are meant to embody the stereotypes thrown upon each region’s people during the day. America nominates himself as leader of the Allies and chows down on hamburgers as he goes, the former of which frustrates England, as he believes his experience in military ordeals would benefit the Allied forces greatly. China more or less does as told, while Russia agrees with all of the Allies decisions, often muttering to himself about his plans following the war. As for France, he doesn’t seem to enjoy the competing egos of England and America, though the focus of any conversation he gets involved in turns to how everyone else should look to France for inspiration on their lifestyles. France also makes the situation awkward with perverted conversation from time to time, though what exactly he is saying is left largely up to the viewers’ imagination.

The Axis powers are given greater focus than the Allies, both due to the fact that they are introduced and form a pact earlier on in the series, as well as the fact that Italy is essentially the lead character of the series. For a lead character, Italy follows an unusual formula, as he is neither particularly skilled in combat nor motivated to defend himself. Time and time again, Italy talks about his love for pasta and – when faced with conflict – waves the white flag of surrender with great passion.

Germany is the brains of the operation for the Axis powers and seems to be the only character in the show both capable of succeeding in military operations and maintaining a serious attitude. Germany usually finds himself (begrudgingly) coming to Italy’s rescue, though as he states late in the series, Italy is the closest thing Germany has to a friend. Japan is easily the most difficult to read character in the show, his facial expressions rarely changing. His military strength is shown to be admirable, though it also seems he doesn’t quite understand the lifestyles and traditions of the European nations. Both Germany and Japan find themselves in many awkward or unfortunate situations, usually the result of Italy’s encounters with the Allies.

The series is split into two major stories – the WWII campaign, as previously mentioned, and the reformation of the Roman Empire’s remnants into modern-day Italy. During this prequel story (known as Chibitalia), young Italy spends his days cleaning the house of Holy Rome, which is occupied by the other divisions of Rome, as well as Austria and Hungary. It explains the underlying politics that led to modern-day Italy, not without contest from various political movements wishing to achieve the former glory of the Roman Empire. Chibitalia wraps up a short while before the conclusion of the first season, and in exchange viewers are given a brief look into America’s past as he attempts to clean out his storage room. This backstory focuses on America’s upbringing by England and the Revolutionary War, but is far more brief than the events of Chibitalia and isn’t nearly as engaging due to the choppy, fast-paced storytelling. America’s Storage Room Cleaning is a prime example of where the series does have some flaws, because - while there are very very few dull moments in the first season - when the show does slip up and lose its comedic touch it takes a while to get back on track.

The series received a TV-MA rating in the US, though this has been justified as a rating for the series as a whole, with many episodes being relatively clean in regards to content. The more adult elements have to do with occasional vulgar language and innuendos. The inclusion of these elements in an otherwise relatively clean series makes for a bit of an odd viewing experience, but the focus doesn’t ever detract because of them.

The animation is quite good, though as Axis Powers: Hetalia began as an internet series, it doesn’t quite stack up to the art design of other recent anime. Some may find the blurry watercolor style of the Chibitalia backstory to be annoying, as it is quite drastically different than the digital coloring featured in the bulk of the show. With each episode being roughly five minutes in length, however, the artists could have done much worse with the series. The soundtrack is few and far between, in large part due to constraints in the show’s time length. When the soundtrack is accompanying a scene, it’s usually in the form of a short jingle or event-specific tune, much like in some video games. The Japanese voice actors do a splendid job in keeping the humor of the series cruising along and it their characters’ respective accents and attitudes pretty spot-on. Without a strong cast, Axis Powers: Hetalia would have crashed and burned pretty fast, and it’s comforting to see that plenty of extra effort was put into the voice acting. It will be interesting to see how the English dub voice actors handle the show come September 2010.

The season finale isn’t anything particularly spectacular, but it is fitting, considering the time length of any given episode of Axis Powers: Hetalia. There is plenty of humor throughout the show and a fair share of running gags. Guest characters such as Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Austria, and even the Roman Empire (or as Italy knows him, ‘Grandpa Rome’) show up from time to time to keep the story interesting and advance the events surrounding WWII. While some viewers might get sick of Italy constantly surrendering, perhaps they will find some compensation during the latter half of the season when the focus shifts more heavily to the Allied forces. All in all, Axis Powers: Hetalia is a hilarious romp through history so long as viewers understand the context of the series’ events.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

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