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Anyone who has ever read Sui Ishida’s popular dark fantasy manga series Tokyo Ghoul, or watched at least one episode of its anime adaptation, might have noticed that the series largely builds its plot around the theme of the so-called ‘(evil) double’ or ‘the Doppelgänger’.
Tokyo Ghoul is set in an alternate reality where humans coexist with cannibalistic ghouls. The ghouls look exactly like ‘normal’ human beings and they mimic their behavior and appearance. Most of them live among the human population in secret to avoid being caught by the authorities. Some of them, however, are consciously trying to suppress their ‘ghoulish’ nature, integrate with the human population, and pursue a ‘normal’, human life.
Throughout the greater part of the series, the protagonist Kaneki Ken struggles with his ‘inner-ghoul’ and tries to find a balance between his human and ghoul side. But Kaneki’s struggle is a bit more intense than that of an ‘every-day ghoul’ because Kaneki is a half-ghoul; neither a complete ghoul, nor a complete human being. A half-ghoul is usually an offspring of a human and a ghoul or is created artificially by transplanting ghoul organs into a human, as was the case with Kaneki.
As a half-ghoul, Kaneki experiences double-alienation; both from the world of ‘pure’ human beings and the world of ‘pure’ ghouls, due to which his character development primarily revolves around balancing the ‘human Kaneki’ and the ‘ghoul Kaneki’, as well as finding a way for humans and ghouls to coexist. The whole concept of the inner coexistence between the ‘human Kaneki’ and the ‘ghoul Kaneki’, together with the character’s attempts to suppress his ‘ghoulish’ nature at the beginning of the series, is also reflected in the first seasons’ opening theme Unravel by Toru Kitajima from Ling Tosite Sigure and its lyrics: “Is there someone inside of me?”
In Ishida’s world, the figure of the ghoul can be seen as a metaphor of duality and the darker side of human nature. The ghoul metaphorically channels suppressed desires and/or uncontrollable feelings. So, for instance, while ‘human Kaneki’ would not even dare to hurt a fly, the ‘ghoul Kaneki’ channels precisely those aspects of Kaneki’s character which largely remain suppressed or hidden in his ‘human side’, such as Kaneki’s eventual decision to ‘hurt’ (i.e., completely smash) other ghouls in order to protect the people he cares for. But this dynamic between the two sides of Kaneki’s character and the idea of suppressing some uncontrollable aspects of human nature is not really that new in contemporary Japanese popular culture.
In general, the theme of the “Doppelgänger” (German: Literally “double-goer”) actually goes all the way back to German Romanticism and the German poet Heinrich Heine. Heine’s poem Der Doppelgänger (1828) introduces the figure of ‘the double’ through the image of a man who suffers a mental breakdown once he encounters an individual looking exactly like him.
Even though the theme of the “Doppelgänger” has roots in German Romanticism, it has become better known through the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louise Stevenson, and the Russian writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. Poe’s short story William Wilson (1839) revolves around a student who meets a boy of the same name, age, and appearance. As a result, he loses his mind as the story unfolds and ‘the other William Wilson’ keeps appearing at different stages of ‘the original William Wilson’s’ life. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is probably the most famous story dealing with the theme of ‘the double’, in which Dr. Henry Jekyll experiments with chemicals that eventually turn him into the devious Mr. Edward Hyde. Finally, Dostoevsky’s famous novel The Double (1846) tells the story of a mentally-unstable clerk who is convinced that a double is stealing away his job, girl and bedroom. There’s a bunch of other books dealing with the theme of ‘the double’, but these are probably some of the best-known examples. There’s also a ton of pretty interesting movie adaptations to check out, such as Richard Ayoade’s The Double (2013), focusing on Dostoevsky’s novel.
The theme of ‘the double’ is also flooding the contemporary anime and manga scene and many popular series and productions are arguably inspired by the same themes that intrigued the minds of Poe and Stevenson almost a century ago. Tokyo Ghoul is just one of them. For example, recent volumes of Yana Toboso’s manga series Black Butler have revealed that the young Earl Ciel Phantomhive actually has a twin brother (as if one spoiled English lord was not enough for Sebastian to handle).
Although dealing with the theme of ‘the double’ in a different way, Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan is similar to Tokyo Ghoul in some of its underlying ideas. For instance, while in Ishida’s story world the ghouls turn into a metaphor of some darker aspects of human nature, the same can be said for the humanoid giants in Isayama’s. Attack on Titan’s protagonist Eren Yaeger also goes through similar struggles as Kaneki while trying to control the transformations into his titan form. The figure of the titans, and the idea of humans transforming into them, can also be read as a metaphor of uncontrollable or inhuman urges that are sometimes difficult to suppress or should, for better or for worse, perhaps remain hidden.
The same goes for Ichigo Kurosaki from Tite Kubo’s manga and anime series Bleach. In Bleach, the theme of ‘the double’ is represented through Ichigo’s struggles with his hollow side (in the fictional world of Bleach, hollows are corrupted spirits which devour the souls of human beings), and many episodes of the anime and manga are visually impressive in their way of depicting how the human in Ichigo is gradually being devoured by the hollow inside him.
The list of anime series inspired by the theme of ‘the double’ could go on into infinity, but I will wrap up with one last example: Kazue Kato’s Blue Exorcist. This one is perhaps not the most obvious example but we can read Rin Okamura’s initial urge to suppress his demon instincts as representing a struggle between his ‘human self’ and the ‘demonic other’.
All in all, it is interesting to see how many anime and manga series are actually inspired by similar themes. From Tokyo Ghoul to Attack on Titan and Blue Exorcist, some elements in all of these series can be seen as based on the concept of ‘the Doppelgänger’ or ‘the (evil) double’. The frequent occurrence of the motif of ‘the double’ and the protagonist’s inner struggle to balance different aspects of his/her personality attests to these themes’ recurrent presence in contemporary Japanese popular culture, even though they have roots in German Romanticism and Edgar Allan Poe, or probably even further back in history. In any case, one could easily say that the series discussed above are just ‘reinventing the wheel’, but they all are still pretty amazing and give a ‘centuries-old theme’ their own, unique twist.