Great Pretender and Robin Hood: The Appeal of the Outlaw Heroby Jaylon Martin,
What anime features charismatic characters trying to make a buck, high speed plane races, and a phenomenal jazzy OP that we all love? I'm of course talking about Great Pretender, the latest offering from Studio WIT, creators of Attack on Titan, The Ancient Magus' Bride, and Vinland Saga. Centering on Makoto Edamura, a scam artist who is roped into the schemes of Laurent and his team as this group of international con artists slyly rob the corrupt, rich, and powerful from their wealth. Great Pretender is a phenomenal watch that I can't recommend enough. Its OP is jazzy, its characters are strong, and its twists are incredibly fun to watch unfold as we go on this thrilling ride of crime and illegality. And Great Pretender wraps it all in wonderful animation and art and tops it with Freddie Mercury's cover of “The Great Pretender,” so it's no small wonder that I love it so much. But I think there's more to what makes this series so great for me and what makes many stories like it so loved.
Audiences have long loved the story of Robin Hood and the many honorable crooks or outlaw heroes influenced by him. From Ocean's Eleven to Leverage to Dragon Age to Watchdogs, people enjoy the idea of a criminal that steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Folklorist Graham Seal describes the rise of these outlaw heroes as when "a set of social, political, and economic circumstances involving conflict between one or more social groups develops—almost always over access to resources, wealth, and power—and combines with a charismatic individual perceived as being on the side of an oppressed group." When times are hard, we love to see an ally of the oppressed rise up and fight back against the system without hurting those already suffering under it. Of course, it helps that these stories are often entertaining and fun to watch. Charming smiles and surprising twists run side by side with intricate schemes, daring stunts, and close calls. Even better when we see a horrible art critic who scams for greed get tricked out of all of his money by the people he has hurt. But what really drives it all home is how we can see ourselves in these outlaw heroes.
The main characters in the Great Pretender are all normal people, not mythic legends or destined heroes. And just like normal people, every one of them has their own trauma they carry with them. Their own personal tragedies lend them an air of complexity and groundedness that helps us to relate to them and makes them seem familiar. Who among us does not know someone who has been dealt a bad hand and faced misfortune? A young man haunted by a past that is not his own. A young girl whose whole world was turned upside down as a child by a war she had no part in. And a woman whose love was ruined by greed and capitalism. All of them are pushed to the brink by this world, especially Makoto and Abby. Makoto is blamed for the crimes of his father and then charged with a crime that he did not even know he was committing, leaving him no choice but to swindle others to make ends meet when he could not find a single other opportunity. And then there's Abby, who knew only death and violence after her country and her life were torn apart by war.
Just like Howard Pyle's Robin Hood, whose life is threatened and he murders someone in a fit of rage, these characters are normal people thrown into their circumstances by a cruel and unjust world. They are pushed by unjust forces that show them and others like them little kindness. But even after they've been pushed to that edge and have committed a wrong they can never truly take back, they find a way to do right by the world and the people in it, helping those who have been hurt just like them. Makoto is reluctant to stay with the Confidence Men but he does not turn away from a chance to help people who have been hurt and bring down those that hurt others, like an organizer who almost killed off a pilot to keep the races rigged. This is after he gave the money he's made back to those he scammed and served his prison sentence. Even as he continues to scam and break the law, he upholds his morals and brings some form of good and justice into the world. He tries to save Salazar from suffering the consequences of Cassano's crimes. And Coleman only becomes his target while he is helping a family keep the boarding house he's staying at. Makoto is surely a criminal and a crook but does that erase the good he is doing as an outlaw? Does his criminal act negate the fact that he brought justice to a corrupt art critic who never would have suffered for his crimes otherwise?
Author Paula Wallace writes in Why We Still Love Robin Hood After All These Years, "He's both atoning for his earlier crimes and helping make his little bit of the world a safer, fairer place for all. Yet again, we see in Robin Hood our best selves, for is this not what we, too, want?" These Robin Hood characters, whether their story be in Great Pretender or Watchdogs, are examples of what we all could be, even after this world has beaten us down and given us injustice after injustice.
And the injustices that we face are far too commonplace in this world. Makoto screams "What happened to justice?" and we often find ourselves screaming the same thing in different worlds and at different volumes. This world far too often delivers injustices to those undeserving for the simple crime of not being rich and powerful. All the while, so many get away with causing pain without a single consequence. Even now, in the middle of a pandemic, so many stuff their pockets while others lose their homes and go without. The systems we have don't always give us justice. Designed to serve the powerful, they often fail us in critical ways. And the means to push against this is not always self-evident. So there is something refreshing and endearing about a show like Great Pretender where justice is served.
By working outside of the systems at hand to deliver justice to those that deserve it, Great Pretender, just like Robin Hood, shows us how broken these systems are and how easy it is for all of us to be taken advantage of. But they also give us hope that the world can be a better place and we can be the heroes that make it better. As Paula Wallace writes, "It's that simple: Show us a hero with a calling and a purpose, in whom we can see ourselves, and we're all yours."
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