How Hetalia Got My Groove Back

24 May

Or: I learned most of my Russian history from fan fiction and that shames me to my core

As I’m writing this, I’m facepalming.

knew that if I wanted to honestly write about my discoveries of Russia, I was going to have to talk about Hetalia. I really don’t want to. But damnit, we’re talking about Cold War stereotypes and perceptions between America and Russia, and I’m nothing if not dedicated to this blog.

Let’s take this from the beginning shall we?

If you’ll recall from this post, I said: ” Or, if [historical fiction uses real people], shouldn’t they be treated with care and delicacy? Like, how front-and-center the real historical person is, should be to the degree your story is true.”

Well, look at who’s calling the kettle black.

Axis Powers Hetalia, by Hidekaz Himayura, is an online webcomic-turned-anime where nations of the world…are anthropomorphized. Mostly male and in their early/mid-twenties, the characters find themselves in situations either based during or around WWII. And you know what? That wouldn’t be so bad.

If Hetalia wasn’t categorized as a comedy.

L–>R: Japan, Italy, Germany. No, I’m not kidding. This is a real thing. Yes, I do have a point to all this nonsense and I’ll be getting to it soon.

“The Wacky Adventures of the Axis Powers desu” is cutesy and appeals to the lowest common denominator of anime fangirls. I should note, however, that most serious issues are usually treated with a fade to black or simply aren’t mentioned. No Holocaust jokes here. Point to Himayura.

Because it’s a humor piece, many situations are overly simplified. And people don’t really like it when you simplify their history and culture for a few jokes. Like the Koreans. Or the Italians, who get the brunt of Himayura’s jokes. The name Hetalia, in fact, is a portmanteau of the Japanese hetare, useless, and Italia, Italy.

The characters’ personalities are based on national stereotypes. This is interesting in and of itself, as for most Americans, we understand the world as it is–according to us. This is a comic that shows us how the world is according to the Japanese.

The original cast has human name equivalents to their national identity. Russia’s is Ivan Braginski. America’s is Alfred F. Jones.

America (right) is described as a cheerful, energetic and somewhat conceited young man who is obsessed with heroes, justice, and freedom. He has the habit of sticking his nose into everyone’s business, which causes him to have difficulty making friends.

And Russia (left)is a:  large young man who is seemingly bighearted and innocent, but is in reality childishly cruel. He comes off as intimidating without even saying a word, his gentle smile and disposition only intensifying the aura of dread which seems to constantly hang over him.

Um…ok. Why?

I mean, it’s nice to know that an ignorance of Russian culture and history, and that seeing them as something to be feared, is universal but I’m still relatively confused. And that’s only scraping the surface of wtf-ery that came out of the webcomic and the anime.

Ok. I’ve done my fair share of complaining about this anime and manga. I’m sure many of you are wondering–if there was so many things wrong with it, why was I active in the fanbase for eighteen freaking months?

Well the answer, simply, is the fans.

When I got into Hetalia in late 2009, the majority of the fanbase were undergrads, between 19 and 24. One person on tumblr said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that Himayura left the character descriptions pretty open-ended, so it’s our responsibility as fans to fill in the holes.

This wouldn’t fly in any other fandom but Hetalia, because the history of mankind is so varied and so vast that you couldn’t realistically whittle characterizations down to a few sentences. We used to get together on the LiveJournal community and talk head-canons, our own interpretations of Himayura’s characters.

This is what I look like when I read bad characterizations of Russia

But it’s a double-edged sword. Leave most of the interpretations to the fans, you’re bound to stare stupidity right in its stupid face.It was, and still is, more common than not to see a fan work where Russia was the villain. Or portrayed as psychotic and masochistic who would slaughter the entire cast by the end of the fic.

Alex, can I take Cold War stereotyping for 300 please?

So, if you’ll recall from the first article of this series, that perceptions between America and Russia are better now, simply on the merits that my generation was born outside the cauldron of the Cold War. But the idea that Russia is The Bad Guy is still present, as seen in the often poorly thought out and written fics of Hetalia fans. Why? Because there hasn’t been anything in pop culture or otherwise, to promote a healthier image of Russia and the Russians. So, we’re left with the stale leftovers of a bygone era. We have the cultural understanding equivalent of meatloaf.

But every once in a while a fic would be uploaded to the LJ community with reference end-notes almost as long as the fic itself and well written to-boot.

The Chosen End was probably the most influential fic series in my time with Hetalia as well as my understanding of pre-Revolution Russo-American relations. As much as I love my thick tomes of Russian history (it makes me feel like a Grown Up), I’d rather be on the back of a horse in a buffalo herd hunting with Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, Wild Bill Cody and George Custer.

Yeah. That really happened.

I had no idea how close Russo-American relations were before the Revolution. There seems to be an overall quiet of this fact on both sides of the Atlantic. I certainly never learned in school that the Russians were the only European power who supported the Union during the Civil War or that Americans aided the Russians through humanitarian aid during the Crimean War. Did you?

The United States and Russia have always been at war.

I often return to something else said at the symposium on overcoming Cold War stereotypes. Matthew Rojansky, from the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said both Russia and the United States are vast, multicultural empires who were too occupied with their own issues to get involved with Europe’s kerfuffles. Always reluctant, he said, to interfere in European affairs, when they did, they were often the deciders of said conflict: America in both the World Wars; Russia in the Napoleonic Wars as well as World War II.

I almost stood up clapping when he said this. This is how I’ve felt for ages.

As awkward as it is for me to admit, if I want to mention something in pre-Revolution Russo-American relations, I start research with their footnotes.

Both pyrrhiccomedy and wizard890, the authors of TCE, have since left the Hetalia community, with all the other cool people. And I haven’t been active in the community for just as long as I was active.

Even though the premise of Hetalia makes me facepalm. Even if the current fans make me ashamed of ever being involved with it. I can’t deny that this series and the fans have had a profound impact on my understanding of Russia and even my own country.

And I still ship Russia/America. Hard.

You can check out Axis Powers Hetalia the webcomic, subbed and dubbed anime from FUNimation. And guys? Try to have some fun with it.

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2 Responses to “How Hetalia Got My Groove Back”

  1. Matthew Roberts May 24, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    I quite appreciate the Tennant .gif. Also: there should be Hetalia fic where Russia is a Dostoyevsky character.

    • theaccidentalrussophile May 24, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

      Dr. Who gifs are always applicable 🙂
      There might be one somewhere. I’m afraid to look, tbh. o.o
      There’s a chapter in TCE where America and Russia discuss Dostoevsky in a coffee shop after the Civil War, and America likens him to Ivan Karamazov.

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