The evil doppelgänger is a classic trope of fiction. I’m drawn to simple stories in this space, ones that revel in what makes these counterparts nefarious, and how this inevitably leads to cool battles where the original and the double are evenly matched. Oddly, though, I find that this trope isn’t terribly common in anime and manga.
While TVTropes is not the be-all end-all of how to understand fiction, it’s notable that the anime and manga sections for “Evil Doppelgänger” and “Mirror Universe” are barely populated. The Evil Knockoff has more entries, though they are typically not long-term characters. Goku Black is one such knockoff, as he‘s more of an imposter in the vein of the Fake Ultraman and the Fake Kamen Rider, as explained by Toriyama Akira himself. The Precure franchise has seen a number of examples, but they usually last for only a little while—a standalone movie (Yes! Pretty Cure 5, see image above), a couple episodes (Smile Precure), and only rarely as a recurring villain (Dark Precure in Heartcatch Precure!) Often, if they have any enduring popularity, it’s because their designs have an inherent appeal as the “bad versions.”
Contrast that with superhero stories where the trope is downright ubiquitous. For example, the Crime Syndicate from DC Comics has taken various forms, but they all amount to the same thing: crime-committing counterparts to the Justice League, who come from an alternate universe, and whose differences with the heroes range from interesting to hilarious. For example, the original incarnation of the evil Superman—known as Ultraman—gained new superpowers whenever exposed to kryptonite. Owlman is Batman except his origins usually involve being a relative of Bruce Wayne who had to kill someone in cold blood. When I think about how different creators can interpret what it means to be the mirror version of an existing character, it makes me appreciate their imaginations. Sometimes, it’s Spock with a goatee, or the way Nega Duck prefers scheming and explosives to theatrics and Gas Guns.
I think the difference might have to do with the fact that superhero comics have historically been some combination of “goes on forever” + “willing to bring back villains who will come and go.” Even in the longest-running anime and manga that would potentially have evil clones in the first place, they usually don’t go beyond a single arc. I have to wonder if such characters might be less appealing to creators and consumers of anime and manga alike because they’re not working off the succinct characterizations that have classically defined superheroes.
Or even if the heroes do have “dark opposites,” they’re usually characters unto themselves, like how Gaara parallels Naruto by having a similar yet more cruel past, or how Shigaraki in My Hero Academia is like the evil version of a superhero nerd to contrast with Deku. The fact that literal superhero-themed anime and manga don’t feature such characters feels significant. Why is there no One Kick Man or Lion and Hare?
Instead, where the doppelgängers seem to thrive is in the world of video games, to the point that trying to count them is pointless. Whether it’s Dark Link in the Zelda, Dark Harrier in Space Harrier 2, or Dark Samus in Metroid, the notion of having to fight an opponent with all your skills provides a nice thematic challenge—especially in the endgame. Perhaps their lack of story is a bit more forgiving there because the primary focus isn’t narrative but gameplay.
Naturally, it’s not like a story needs evil doppelgangers to be good or fun. That said, what I find interesting is that for all the diversity of tropes and stories that manga and anime contain, somehow this is the one that isn’t so common. In the meantime, I can appreciate where such villains show up.