The Seven Levels of Meta

“Meta,” or self-reference, is one of those things that fascinates me and has since I learned about recursion in computer programming. A subroutine that calls itself! Ye gods! What a concept!

Now, meta is one of those things that appeals to people whose minds are spectacularly twisted, like mine. My buddy Derekl is also one of those, and I hope he’ll chime in on this. I’ll do my best to attract his attention by including a picture of Meteora from Re:Creators, the most metah character evah!



Like a lot of cartoons from the Golden Age of Hollywood (Bugs Bunny, Droopy Dawg, Tom and Jerry…that time period), there’s a lot of meta in anime, and probably for the same reason: The animators have a LOT of screen time to fill and they have to fill it a LONG time before they get any kind of response from the audience.

So they put in stuff that amuses themselves. Because, when you get right down to it, as they are making the stuff, they are the only audience they have.

So they put in jokes that they find funny. And a lot of the jokes that they find funny are jokes ABOUT themselves, and their buddies, and their references and sources and all that kind of stuff.

It seems to me that there are a lot of series that include some elements of meta at one level or another, and if that’s true one of the things that implies is that there ARE different levels of meta, that is, the self-reference can be deeper or shallower depending on how it’s done. So let’s take a stab at figuring that out:

Level one: Meta jokes

The lowest level is jokes about or references to elements of pop culture and especially other anime. These are like Easter Eggs in that they don’t do anything to the story if the audience doesn’t notice them, but it’s an extra bonus if they do.

There’s a nice one in I Can’t Understand What My Husband is Saying. Kaoru and Hajime are expecting their first child, and Kaoru calls to him, “What names do you like?”

Cut to Hajime in the classic Gendo Ikari pose: dark glasses peering over steepled fingers. “Shinji if it’s a boy. Rei if a girl,” he says. Boom. Neon Genesis Evangelion reference. Meta level one.

Level two: Character makes meta references (otaku character)

Level two is when it’s the character specifically talking about anime and anime tropes. Now it’s not just an Easter Egg or throwaway gag; now it’s a part of the character. Of course, it’s a relatively low level of meta since such people really exist and aren’t just anime tropes. You may even know someone like that.

You see this a lot in I Can’t Understand…, since the reason Kaoru can’t understand Hajime is that he’s otaku.

A better example is Konata Izumi (one of my faves) from Lucky Star. Like Hajime she’s otaku, so she makes manga and anime references frequently. She hates baseball season, for instance, because the games run over and delay the start of her animes. She works in a maid cafe (where she plays Haruhi Suzumiya), talks about dressing to provide her audience with fan service, and describes her friends as “tsundere” and “moe.” She is an anime character talking about anime. (It’s because she’s meta that I like her so much.)

Level three: Character breaks fourth wall

You reach a new level of meta when the character breaks the “fourth wall” to talk directly to the camera. This implies a level of self-awareness for the character, that the character KNOWS they are in a TV show or cartoon or anime because they know there’s a camera, know where the camera is, and know there’s an audience to talk to behind the camera.

In the first episode of Kill la Kill there’s one of those moments. Mako catches her brother trying to shake Ryuko down, and goes into the manic Mako routine before dashing off to catch the tram up the hill to Honnouji Academy. Ryuko turns right to the camera and asks the audience, “What the hell?” If I remember right, and I may not, it’s the only time in the series she does that.

Levels one and two are pretty common, if you stop to think about it. Level three is where you have to start to tread lightly. Remember that fiction requires the willing suspension of disbelief: intellectually you know what you’re watching is fake, but you expect your brain to accept it as real if it is to have any sort of emotional, non-ironic impact on you. The more the character talks directly to you, the more you are reminded that they are just photons on a screen.

Level four: Character is aware they are an actor

You have to suspend disbelief one more level when you have a character who knows they are a character. In cartoons they usually do this by the convention that the character is a real person who happens to be an actor playing a part – as themself. There are anime examples but the classic is Bugs Bunny: Bugs routinely implies that he is a person named “Bugs Bunny” playing a character named “Bugs Bunny.”

See how this meta stuff works?

You see devolved versions of this in shows like Tiger and Bunny and The Boys, where the superheroes are also TV stars in reality-like shows. I recently ran into a show called Hinako, where Hinako was supposed to be an anime star. She gets a letter from her agent telling her she has to lose ten pounds, so she exercises and sleeps. Yeah, that’s the whole show. But what’s important is that Hinako the character acts as though she is Hinako, an actor.

Level five: Character interacts with creator

Believe it or not, this concept has a VERY long history. Back before the Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave, cooked up Betty Boop they had a character named Koko the Clown. Koko was a pretty damned clever character. For one thing, he was a whole different level of meta because Koko was rotoscoped: they would shoot live action footage and animate by tracing the photographed images.

Koko and Max

Koko and Max Fleischer’s hand

And Koko, the live action reference, was played by Dave Fleischer. Dear god, I have no idea what level of meta that is!

But when they shot the films there would be live action of Max and animation of Koko interacting with him: playing pranks, climbing in and out of Max’s inkwell, things like that.

This level of meta is kind of limited, though, in that the creator has to be a, well, creator, a writer or animator or someone like that. The number of times you can get away with that is fairly limited. No one wants to watch anime after anime about people who make anime.

And no, this is not a Shirobaku reference. In Shirobaku they are all characters. No one in Shirobaku is REALLY a creator; they are just playing them.

Level six: Creator becomes character

When the creator writes themself into a show or a series or a cartoon, we’re starting to get into seriously mind-bending territory.

Very few people are aware of this, but there’s an old Bugs Bunny cartoon called Wackiki Wabbit. Basically, two shipwrecked sailors wash up on a desert island inhabited by Bugs Bunny. Hijinks ensure and Bugs sails off, leaving the sailors to eat each other or starve.

Wackiki Wabbit was written by Tedd Pierce. The taller of the two sailors, the one with the big nose, is Tedd Pierce; the shorter man is his writing partner Mike Maltese.

Pierce wrote himself and Maltese into the cartoon, and they each did their own voices. Boom. The writer is in the cartoon.

Wackaki Wabbit starring Bugs Bunny (right) as Bugs Bunny, and Tedd Pierce (left) and Mike Maltese (center) as Tedd Pierce and Mike Maltese

Level seven: Character becomes creator

I was, and continue to be, amused by Re:Creators. It’s written by Rei Hiroe, the writer of Black Lagoon, and if there’s one person who “gets” the false nature of fiction, it’s Rei Hiroe. Basically, in Re:Creators characters from manga come to the inhabit the world of their creators, interacting with them, befriending them.

At the end of the show one of the characters, our old friend Meteora, can send the characters back to their fictional worlds, but the trick is she has to stay in this one. Oh, rats, what will she do? After all, in this world she has to make a living, feed herself, etc.

To make a living she writes a light novel. Oh, and the novel is called Re:Creators.


No, we haven’t maxed out the meta yet. You can still get a bonus point…

Bonus point: Character has meta name.

A meta name is not the same as an eponym. Violet Evergarden is called Violet Evergarden because it’s about a character named Violet Evergarden. But Violet Evergarden never even gets to meta level 1.

But watch this one:

Meteora – eor = Meta.

That’s a meta name, or a Meta name, if ever I saw one, and that’s why Meteora is the most metah character evah.

Wouldn’t Atemeta be a great name? Just sayin’.

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.

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