Hetalia: Axis Powers (Toast With A Big Boot!)
So a few weeks ago a student who doesn’t otherwise say much came up to me excitedly after class. Something we’d mentioned in class prompted her to ask me if I’d ever watched something called “Hetalia.”
I had no idea what that was.
“It’s an anime cartoon in which all of the main characters are nation-states, mostly during World War II…”
OK, strangely I had at least heard of this before. Last year there was a lunch table committed to daily sharing of... whatever one calls ‘fan fiction’ in the anime world. Mostly it was this “Hetalia.” I remember two girls quite dogmatic about Pakistan deserving a main character.
I didn’t argue. I barely even knew what they were talking about.
After a few moments of excited discussion, the student went to her next hour and I didn’t think much of it. The next day, however, she showed up with a DVD case of – you guessed it – the first two seasons. Inside were multiple post-it notes explaining where to find the parts she’d mentioned yesterday, but encouraging me to watch the entire thing for proper context.
I agreed, but I confess I was not overly excited about the task. Sure, it’s not asking much – I wouldn’t have to go anywhere, or do anything really, other than watch 30 minutes of cartoons. FOR THE CHILDREN.
Nevertheless, I put it off for a couple of weeks until guilt got the better of me. I put in the first disc.
What. The. $%#&?
It wasn’t a question of whether I liked it or didn’t so much as my having no idea what the crap monkey flight pink was going on. It was fast, and loud, and grating, and musical, and soft, and allegorical, and funny, and satirical, and juvenile, and multi-layered, and – and then suddenly the first episode was over.
I should watch a few more. FOR THE CHILDREN.
I’m hardly an authority on this show even after 20 episodes, but as far as manic animated chaos goes, it really is rather educational. That’s not the biggest thing I learned watching, however.
For the rest of this post to make sense, I encourage you to take five minutes and watch one episode – Hetalia: Axis Powers, Episode 3. Seriously, what else you have going that’s SO important you don’t have five minutes? FOR THE CHILDREN?
If I were to quiz you over this episode, how would you do?
On the one hand, none of it’s particularly difficult. On the other, unless this sort of animated frenzy is already your thing, you were probably a bit lost part of the time. Confused by some of the visual and sound effect choices. Annoyed here, bored a moment later – hopefully amused once or twice.
But until you’ve watch a half-dozen episodes, the whole thing’s rather bewildering. It’s not until I watched some of the early episodes again after making it through fifteen or twenty others that I caught half the stuff that seems so obvious to me now.
Because although I like to think of myself as reasonably bright, this show is in a language I simply don’t speak – and in this case I don’t mean Japanese. It’s a media format that’s really not my thing, and to which I’ve only rarely been exposed. Consequently, someone more familiar with similar shows – or even the comics on which they’re based – might find me a bit… slow. Unappreciative. Perhaps whiney or defiant, depending on how many of my initial reactions I spoke aloud.
You see where I’m going with this now, don’t you?
I had the luxury of going in with a rather low-pressure purpose – to be able to tell a student honestly that I’d watched a few episodes. I was additionally fortunate in that the primary storyline involves content with which I’m at least generally familiar – a kind of ‘World War II for Dummies’.
Had I gone in with limited time and less prior knowledge, knowing I’d be assessed on my understanding and appreciation of the content, artistic choices, and maybe even production realities of the series, I’d at the very least have enjoyed it less. Any confusion I experienced would likely translate into either frustration with the material or with the entity requiring it, or perhaps I'd turn that negative mojo inward as one more indication I’m simply too stupid to pick up on this stuff as it flies by.
Watching this show is how my students feel when I ask them to read a great novel for both content and theme, to explore metaphor and the use of language and imagery, or to unravel the roles various characters play in a grander narrative. My experience was somewhat comporable to what happens to them the first time they're expected to analyze a legitimate historical document, or figure out Causes, Triggers, and Results for major events. It's not that these things are unreasonable or hard - it's that they're not their world.
I’m familiar with the basic structure and literary devices books like Lord of the Flies or The Grapes of Wrath. I have the background knowledge to appreciate the tone and subtleties of True Grit or follow the allegory of Animal Farm. Heck, on a good day I kinda get Shakespeare’s wordplay – from sheer years of exposure and repetition if nothing else.
But they walk in cold, and often against their will. Even if they’ve read books before, they’re confronted with new varieties not following the rules of all that’s gone before. It’s easy to become annoyed, or lost, or simply apathetic as they have less and less idea what’s going on or what’s expected of them. They’ve never been asked to see people as countries or elements of human nature or wonder why pigs would be in charge and want so badly to claim they’ve built a successful windmill even if they haven’t. Take away context, prior knowledge, and intrinsic motivation, and how great is YOUR favorite poem, novel, or short story?
I’m glad I watched some Hetalia. I don’t know if I love it, but I ‘get it’ enough to at least enjoy it. Totally worth it the first time I brought it up and was able to talk about it with minimal competence to the student whose enthusiasm first sucked me in. I was able to confess my confusion while still offering her enough feedback to clearly demonstrate I’d invested myself into something important to her, then gladly let her explain the parts on which I was still a bit unclear.
What Hetalia are you assigning to your kids, perhaps with increased frustration they’re not naturally engaged masters of the form? And what Hetalia are you taking on in order to better glimpse their equally rich and valuable worlds?
What’s that? Just one more? OK – if you insist…