Hetalia and Softening the Impact

December 2, 2008 at 2:14 pm (Animanga) ()

Axis Powers Hetalia is an online manga mostly set around World War II. The premise is that all countries have been anthropomorphized; the manga plays out their historical interactions as if they were interactions between people. Most of the characters are male; as you might imagine, there is a strong BL overtone to the whole thing, though there are several relationships put in terms of brotherhood (which either makes the BL overtone thing better or worse, I don’t know; the characters don’t seem to have any parents, they just…pop into being.).

Anyway. So you have countries around the WWII era personified into painfully adorable near-chibis; their interactions as persons reflect their interactions as nations.

What the anthropomorphization does is soften the impact of national interactions, which of course include war. This is slightly inaccurate; rarely do the Hetalia characters engage in battle onscreen; their conflicts tend to be funnier, more buffoonish, rather than cruel and violent. The manga seems to focus more on what happens OUTSIDE of the battles; how nations ally themselves with each other and act and react to each other, how they help and hinder one another on the world stage. Battles are left mostly out of it, now that I think on it. The closest Hetalia comes to depicting a battle “onscreen” as it were is the strip about America declaring independence from England–and even that was more after the fact than the actual battle; more about its aftermath and the change in their relations, than the actual fighting.

Of course, battles help shift national interactions, so it might be kind of strange that this component of their relationships is left out. But as I said, Hetalia helps soften the impact of reality, codifies alliances and treaties into simpler analogies that are easier to grasp. With war, with actual battle…it’s hard to do that softening thing, because softening the impact of war quickly reaches the point where softening becomes disrespect. Easier to gloss over the battles themselves and work around them; but working around them misses how each battle, each fight between characters, can also affect and alter national relationships. Fighting is itself a human interaction, after all.

But at the same time…it’s hard, to portray a battle with the adorable little characters. Harder still to portray battles as interactions between people because then the violence perpetrated by one upon the other throws the nature of their relationship–both in the context of battle and outside of it–into sharper relief. Empires putting colonies in line becomes one character beating another, over and over; their relationship is clearly codified as an abusive one.

I was thinking about recent Chinese history and how it might be thrown into Hetalia terms, when my mind settled on the Rape of Nanking. The Rape of Nanking falls into that category of awful to contemplate, and impossible to soften without disrespect. How do you translate that into Hetalia terms? For all its content, Hetalia is not very serious business. The fanfic is, though. If you were to write the Rape of Nanking into a fanfic, you could conceivably soften it–Japan trashing China’s house for no good reason, for example. But why would you want to? Here is an interaction between nations that has been codified into terms of human interaction; that is the essence of Hetalia. How could you justify writing it as anything other than Japan raping China? It would be awful to write, it would be awful to read, but then again, the reality was awful too. Would softening it Hetalia style be disrespectful? I say yes, partly because there’s no real reason for it to be softened, when history has already translated it into personal interaction for writers. To soften the incident would be to obscure the reality; it was a violent, violating crime by Japan against China. Any fanfic–any writing–about it shouldn’t be lighthearted and funny and buffoonish. The same could be said of any other similar incidents in any war; the use of Napalm in the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, slavery…

Those things will never appear in Hetalia, because how could you even begin to approach them from a Hetalia point of view and be comfortable and not feel like doing it was somehow deeply wrong? Hetalia itself is not serious busness, but the topics it deals with are.

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