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Two Symbolic Takes on WWII

You want a cracked idea for a series, try this: A history lesson about WWII with each country represented by a cute stereotypical character acting out metaphorically actual events in gooey-eyed, pastel-colored comic form. That’s Hetalia Axis Powers. As if it weren’t cracked enough, make every episode 5 minutes long and the central character the ineffective little Italia (presumably the title comes from the combination of “heta”—to suck at—and “Italia”). Given, Italy was about the lamest partner in an evil empire ever, so that’s pretty funny. Oh, and of course it’s made by not only one of the losers, but by a country rather unambiguously on the wrong side of the whole thing.

The whole thing sort of breaks my mind, but at 5 minutes a pop I can take it in small doses, and the number of brutal pot-shots at pretty much everyone involved are truly impressive. (Including Japan—oh, man, is there a low blow about their skill at “miniaturizing things.”) I’m mostly curious where they’re going to go once they get into the meat of it—currently it’s mostly backstory of European history as seen through the filter of “Poor little Italia getting kicked around by Austria—he just likes food and women.”

Now, contrast this with Valkyria Chronicles, which tells an entirely different re-envisioning of WWII from the perspective of basically Switzerland, if Switzerland were Lithuania and had a lot of oil. Valkyria Chronicles doesn’t portray either the Empire (Axis stand-in, though they’re geographically more Russia) or Federation (Allies) particularly favorably, though in general there is a distain for corrupt leadership in every country involved, including the good guys’. What’s interesting about it is that it does address the genocide head-on; the Darcsens stand in for Jews, and are strongly discriminated against for historical reasons by nearly everyone, including many of the main characters, though Gallia isn’t as overtly genocidal as the Empire. Both the game and anime have done a reasonably good job at portraying baseless racial discrimination in a country where, though not unheard of, that isn’t something understood on nearly as visceral a level as in many less-homogenous places.

As for the anime adaptation, I just passed the midpoint of the two seasons and it seems to have found its footing and be getting progressively stronger. As it has progressed the deviations from the storyline of the game have gotten larger, and because it’s had time to build its own path (or maybe just because I’ve gotten used to it) they seem to be fitting together better. The racial aspects—particularly Rosie’s discrimination—also seem to be a little more central and are noticeably stronger in terms of emotional punch compared to early episodes. I’d say overall it seems to have gotten more comfortable with mature themes, tossing in some significantly stronger material than the relatively innocent early episodes. The drama in general seems to be working better now, though the focus on the romantic aspect—or, really, a much stronger focus on the competition between Welkin and Faldio—has been a little heavy in terms of balance.

The one thing that has disappointed me is the lack of action. The story has enough substance to stand without much, but for a war story there’s an awful lot of talking and down time. What action there is has been a little disappointing as well—being based on a strategy game, I was hoping for a little more realism and sense of space in the battles than there is. Also, everybody just has carbines most of the time—Largo has used his antitank lance maybe once. This is particularly disappointing given how spectacularly they handled the tank combat—on the handful of occasions the Edelweis has gotten to strut its stuff it has an amazing sense of speed and mass. Welkin hasn’t gotten quite as many crazy nature-geek moments as I was looking for, either—Faldio seems to be doing more, though in a way I suppose that’s leaving more room for Welkin to develop as a leader.

On that not note, Isara—Darksen mechanic and adopted little sister to hero Welkin—is the only substantive character change that bothered me; she has a quiet but blunt way of dealing with people in the game that came across very well, giving her a unique character and making it understandable why she didn’t get along well with people. In the anime the blunt aspect of her personality has been toned down, leaving her just quiet and forthright; still interesting, but not as distinctive, and it leaves more of the burden of people not working well with her on outright prejudice. On the positive side, she’s gotten a low-key romantic sub-plot with a new character added for the anime (basically to replace the mechanic in the game, who didn’t do much until later on).

Oh, by the way, do NOT watch the opening of the second season if you haven’t already played through the game.  It is much better than the first season opening—great visuals and a decent song—but it is one GIGANTIC spoiler. Hugely disappointing, since they’ve otherwise been very good about keeping one of the two big reveals under wraps, and especially given how punchy and exciting the teaser/intro of the game was without giving much away.  The outro is also less weird and incongruent, so that’s also good.  Apparently no Jane, though.  How can you stick in 12-year-old shock trooper Aisha and leave out Jane?!

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