The idea of recursion, or self-reference, or meta, or whatevertheheckyouwanttocallit, has always interested me. Things that are aware they are things…it’s one of those ideas that makes you say, “Hmmmm.”
The idea of meta goes way back in animation. We have to remember that when cartoon studios turned into factories in the forties and fifties, the writers and animators didn’t have time to connect with their audiences, and so they connected with themselves. That was the first layer of meta: if it makes the production team laugh, good enough.
The classic meta character was Bugs Bunny. He looks right at the camera and asks the audience, fully aware that he is an animated character, “Ain’t I a stinker?” Chuck Jones…the famous director who took fifteen years to figure Bugs out, but once he figured him out had him NAILED…said, “Bugs has read the script. He knows what’s going to happen, and he’s not afraid to let the audience in on it.”
That, baby, am some powerful meta.
Anime can get meta in a bunch of ways. The simplest is to have an otaku character, like my personal fave, Konata Izumi from Lucky Star. Since she’s otaku, she can make observations about manga and anime, and that sometimes includes the anime she is in, as when Konata looks at her friends and says that one of them is moe and another tsundere. Well, they aren’t just her friends – they are also anime characters just like her.
BOOP! Meta Level One.
Then there is the whole isekai genre, where Earth people get sucked into game worlds. Often times, as in the case of Subaru from Re: Zero, he KNOWS he’s been sucked into the game world, and is aware of the fact that he’s playing a game. (One of my problems with Re: Zero is that the first time Subaru dies and goes back to a save point, he’s suddenly forgotten that fact. Man, how stupid is that boy?)
BOOP BOOP! Meta Level Two.
I started out on Re: Creators because it was a concept from Rei Hiroe, who is my main man forever for creating Revy Lee, Rock Okajima, and Black Lagoon. If Hiroe’s name is on it, I want to see it.
And I wasn’t wrong, because Re: Creators heads directly to Meta Level Three and does not pass go and does not collect $200 to get there.
The premise of Re: Creators, if you haven’t seen it, is that by some supernatural means the characters created by certain writers suddenly appear in this world, the world their creators inhabit. Yup…the creators meet the characters. Oh, and the characters have all their powers.
Oh, yeah…Reverse isekai! Cool!
One of the characters, Altair, comes to our world PISSED. You see, her creator was harassed and abused here (they accused her of plagiarism), and ultimately killed herself.
That’ll give you a bad attitude about this world, won’t it? So Altair wants this world destroyed.
So now we’ve got the creators and the characters here in this world, glued together with an Overcoming the Monster (Altair) meta-plot. So far, so good, right?
The characters have their powers, but the creators have THEIR powers, too, and their power is the ability to CREATE. So they get down to creating a world where Altair can be defeated.
BOOP BOOP BOOP … What level of meta are we at? Four? Five? I’ve lost track.
Problem: In the time after Altair’s creator died new people have taken up her cause, and (they don’t say it in the show but it amounts to the same) they’ve turned her Mary Sue. Yes, she is so powerful that she CANNOT BE DEFEATED. Ye gods and little fishies, how do you stop the unstoppable force? Cool but irrelevant battle scenes ensue, coordinated on the side of the good guys by Meteora, a character who is entirely intellectual and smarter than any of the creators (although we’re supposed to believe that she was created by 16-year-old Sota. Yeah, right).
Oh so Meta: Met(eor)a. Get it?
So the creators gang up to write a new story that pits their characters, who are now all people they know, against Altair. Plus they add some stuff, including a new character from Altair’s deceased creator, to the mix.
Is this meta level six?
Oh, and all of this happens live in front of a studio audience, since it’s the audience’s approval that gives their characters power. Don’t want to forget that. Good thing they are writing manga and not anime, because animation would take too long.
ANYWAY, Altair actually subsumes her own creator’s new character. Oh, noes, now she’s really immortal and omnipotent. Earth is toast!
Well, maybe not. Our hero Sato writes a new story for Altair’s dead creator Setsuna (they were buddies and actually dated briefly), and puts her in the story.
So we’ve got a human/creator character turned into a character character. Where are we now, meta level seven?
ANYWAY, they reach the denouement, the great wrap-up after twenty episodes of fights and blood and gore…and the episode is all dialog between Altair and Setsuna, which I think will bore some people to tears but to me was completely unexpected, and when Setsuna goes to kill herself again, Altair saves her. Altair and Setsuna go off to a new world together (there’s a lesbian subtext there that doesn’t matter) and the world is saved and all the characters can go back to their various worlds. PHEW.
Oops. Except Meteora can’t go back, since she has to be in this world to cast the spell that sends the others back. She’s a character stuck in the world of the creators. What kind of life can she have? That’s simple: she becomes a creator herself, and goes off to write a light novel. What should she call it?
Re: Creators, of course.
BOOM! Meta level maximum!
Wait, wait…not quite. Let us not forget the most important equation to human life:
Meteora – eor = Meta
NOW we have achieved meta level maximum!
Now, I liked Re: Creators because I like this self-referential stuff. I found it amusing. Structurally the series is somewhere between weak and fair: They had the characters on one side and omnipotent Altair on the other, but, you know, omnipotent is omnipotent. Until Sato writes Setsuna back into the story they really aren’t going to beat Altair, so the series drags through the last five or six episodes. It’s fun watching the characters and the creators interacting, but at the same time they’re ALL characters (in the anime called Re: Creators), so they do what Hiroe and the writers want them to do. They used a narrative technique I personally like, the Third Force*, to keep the series going, but wasted it by having the third force bow out early and then just disappear, an unresolved loose end.
But seriously. Meta level maximum! How can you resist?
Well, if you don’t like meta…
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.
* The Third Force: Overcoming the Monster as a meta-plot is really straightforward antagonist vs. protagonist stuff, so to jazz it up you add a Third Force that intervenes between them to keep them apart and create narrative rhythm. Otherwise they can just end up fighting all the time. In Re: Creators the third force is Magane, a serious psychopath. Her creator is also dead (he has hung himself), so she is independent of control, and being psychopathic acts according to her whims, frustrating both sides. Alas, she disappears at the end, so her use ends up weak. Which is really too bad because in a number of ways she’s the most interesting character.