#1 Countries personified
The good: Hetalia is a long-running franchise in which every country in the world is turned into a character that embodies common stereotypes about that nation and its people. For example, Italy is a laid-back and air-headed guy that is quick to panic, but incredibly earnest and lovable, whereas America is loud and hyperactive, always wanting to be the center of attention. Almost any country you can imagine receives this make-over and the show then ventures back to historical moments and re-enacts them with the personified countries standing in for the people that were actually a part of it.
As a fan of history I found this idea very appealing and the characters are endearing if you can cope with the possibly offensive stereotyping. It’s all in the spirit of good fun and the characters have good qualities to balance out the bad ones, plus everybody can wrap their head around stereotypes, making the comedy very accessible. It can even teach you about history or at least interest you enough to look into it yourself through the adventures the characters have.
The bad: It’s clear that some countries are the real stars, primarily the key participants in World War II. The designs of Germany, Italy, Japan, France, Russia, etc. are very recognizable, but a lot of other nations get stuck with very samey designs or not enough screen-time to make them memorable. In some cases it’s a joke, like how many nations resemble each other on some surface level, but in other cases you need to really have a particular fondness for a country to remember their design. For example, as a Dutchmen I really took after the design of The Netherlands, but he appears maybe once every 30 episodes, so I wouldn’t blame anybody for forgetting about him.
#2 Comedy in tiny bites
The good: Like with Please Tell Me! Galko-Chan earlier, the episodes of Hetalia are really short, about five minutes each. However, instead of a regular 13 episodes, Hetalia is cut into several seasons totaling nearly 150 of them, all with consistent quality and many strange adventures. There is no shortage of content to watch through and all of it is presented in shorts that are much easier to digest than full length TV episodes, meaning it’s much easier to decide how long you want to keep watching. After all, nobody is going to stop 15 minutes into a TV episode, but if you got 15 minutes to kill then you can fit 3 episodes of Hetalia into that. Not a bad deal, if you ask me.
The bad: There are a lot of running gags to Hetalia, but due to the short format these end up feeling more like entire episodes that are recycled. Be it America’s Storage Room Cleaning or the parts where the Axis forces are stranded on an island, these are jokes that start off entertaining, only to pop up again and again, taking up large chunks of the already short episodes, often with a very flaccid pay-off to it all.
#3 Plenty of diversity
The good: Hetalia is rarely boring and often willing to jump all around history to tell a variety of stories. One episode may be about Greece attempting to revive the Olympics in the 19th century, another about Japan stealing culture from China. Sometimes it’s about Germany trying in vain to discipline his ally and friend Italy, at other times it shows the home life of the countries in the Soviet Union.
Not only are the stories varied, there is also diversity to be found in the emotions. While it always leans towards comedy, there episodes in there that have a more emotional story to tell, which are often some of my favorites in there. Their rarity also makes these a treat to find and that they work so well reflects strongly on Hidekaz’ writing and strange knack for storytelling.
The bad: Being animated by Studio Deen under the direction of the Nobuo Shirahata (Scarlet Fragment, Hero Company, Gravitation) leaves Hetalia feeling unimpressive for the most part. The animation is competent enough to get comedic timing right and make the characters look appealing, but Hetalia is just a show in which not much of anything happens. Jokes usually involve characters sitting or standing around as the comedy happens, there is very little energy and movement to the animation, and on top of that a lot of it is re-used for the aforementioned running gags.
I get that it’s a web show and probably not working on a conventional budget, but I was really grateful for the excellent quality of the dubs, as I could just put Hetalia on a second screen so I could “watch” it while doing something else. If you give it your full attention, it’s kind of dull.