In the build-up to the now-postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, many artists came together under World Flags to create anthropomorphic designs of various countries. When these designs circulated on Twitter recently, it brought back many memories of Hetalia: Axis Powers, a once hugely popular anime that also turned countries into cute anime characters. For some, these are good memories; for others, not so much. Discourse surrounding Hetalia nostalgia and hatred has only increased with the announcement of a new season.
Hetalia's humor works on two main levels: silly jokes about national stereotypes and more in-depth historical references. For the former, for example, there are running gags about France being a romantic and England being fussy, but for the latter, there are situations like when France proposes to England to deal with debt. This scene is an homage to Mollet in 1956, a politician who proposed the idea of France and England forming a union under Queen Elizabeth II. Much like in this moment, France was struggling with debt due to the Suez Crisis and Algerian War. The idea is rejected by England, and France then creates an alternative solution for their problems.
Another example of historical moments is the original relationship between England and what would eventually become the United States. In these flashbacks, brought about by United States' digging through old memorabilia, he recalls how England took care of him while he was younger. At the time, he saw some things that he could admire about England. However, when he grew up, he staged a revolution against England through his desire to grow up into an individual country.
Beyond the humor and history, Hetalia owes much of its popularty to people shipping the various countries. Considering the fact that each country has its own type of charm, it's almost impossible to not imagine the possibilities. Italy's homoerotic relationship with the Holy Roman Empire until the latter had to leave was a romance sprinkled across multiple episodes. Meanwhile, pairings like Switzerland and his caring little sister Liechtenstein give the show some light-hearted moments.
Some aspects of Hetalia: Axis Powers are controversial. One element of this show is that the Axis Powers are put in a more sympathetic light. Historically, the Axis Powers aimed to take over Europe and the rest of the world piece by piece. However, within this show, the Axis countries are the main perspective characters (at least for the first couple more WWII-focused seasons), while the Allies are the aggressors towards Germany's group.
An example of this situation comes in the form of a gag where the Axis Powers are sitting on a beach. They mind their own business as they talk about their plans, and then the United States marches in alongside Allied Powers to capture them all. In this gag the United States sends China in to fight them, who manages to defeat both Germany and Japan before Italy calls out for help. Italy always takes the brunt of the abuse; the title Hetalia itself is a pun roughly translating to "useless Italy."
Despite its controversial material, the overall feel of the show prevents it from being offensive. It's all very light and silly, and the material itself isn't crafted with any malicious intent. Wisely, the show's designs avoid Nazi imagery and the Japanese version avoids any jokes relating to the Holocaust (alas, the English dub tried to "edgy up" the material with some more offensive jokes). The few allusions to Hitler involve Germany openly despising his "boss." The show also sidestepped the manga's most controversial element: its depiction of Korea.
Alas, parts of the fandom have been a lot less tasteful than the show itself, adding to backlash against Hetalia. Perhaps most infamous among fandom incidents was during the Anime Boston 2010 photoshoot, where a few Hetalia cosplayers performed the Nazi salute. This would be offensive any time of year, but it was especially tasteless given the convention coincided with Passover. The actions of these fans, however, does reflect the majority of viewers, nor does it reflect the show itself.
Overall, the Hetalia franchise is a mixed bag. The gags are a mix of genuinely clever and somewhat lazy, and some might find the very concept of the show to be problematic. Episodes are five minutes long and easy to binge, but the stories that spanned these episodes are memorable. It's with all of these aspects in mind that Hetalia could be considered the ultimate "love it or hate it" anime.