Hetalia was everywhere at this year's Anime Expo, from cosplay gatherings to artist alley booths to panel sessions. A satire that started out as a web comic and soon became a series of five-minute anime episodes, this relatively new franchise is a phenomenon within the fandom. When Funimation announced at its Friday evening preview panel that they would be releasing the first season of Hetalia: Axis Powers on DVD this September, screams erupted across the room. The following day, a panel called "Hetalia History" drew a capacity crowd filled with cosplayers.
But Hetalia isn't like other animes that have taken off in the U.S. It's not an action series in the vein of Naruto or Bleach. There are no girls with magical powers and it's not a romantic comedy. It's a satire set largely in and around World War II, though it flashes back to periods like the American Revolution and the Holy Roman Empire, and jumps forward to a G8 Summit.
In the Hetalia universe, countries are personified as young men and women with a variety of flaws. The emphasis isn't on war so much as it is on the relationships between the characters. Italy always relies on Germany for protection. Japan offends China upon first meeting him. America and England are brothers with a rocky relationship. Canada is irritated that he's frequently confused with America. And then there's poor little Sealand, who might be considered the world's smallest country if only the others would recognize him.
Last Saturday at "Hetalia History," panelist Walter Amos noted that this was the best attended Hetalia panel he had helmed. Amos' presentation focused on the sly historical references within the series, like the significance of Prussia's costume, a nod to Frederick the Great. But what was even more interesting than the panel itself, was the audience response. The screams that were once reserved for rock stars and actors were now being used for historical figures. When Amos mentioned Voltaire, a roar of applause followed.
Applause grew louder, though, when Amos brought up speculation that Frederick the Great was gay. Over the past few years, male-male romances geared towards women (called "boys' love" or "yaoi," with the latter term often referring to sexually explicit material) have become increasingly visible within the anime fandom. Hetalia doesn't fall into that category, but there are moments, like when France tries to force England into marrying him, where the appeal to boys' love fans is obvious.
However, a large group of dashing male lead characters and a few innuendos aren't enough to create this intense of a fanbase. During the "Hetalia History" panel, Amos showed a variety of fan-made art projects found online that depicted historical events and provided a few anecdotes about students who have delved into history classes after stumbling upon the show. Hetalia seems to be drawing in history buffs and, at the same time, creating new ones, with its quirkiness and an ability to cram more information into five minutes than most professors can. Watching Hetalia may not be enough to survive a semester of world history, but it is sparking the imagination and intellectual curiousity of anime fans.
Subtitled editions of Hetalia: Axis Powers, episodes 1-40 can be seen for free on Funimation's website. Tokyopop will be releasing the first volume of the manga this fall.