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Interview: Great Pretender Director Hiro Kaburagi and Writer Ryota Kosawa

by Kim Morrissy & Lynzee Loveridge,

Great Pretender is an exciting new anime series produced by Wit Studio. It tells the story of Makoto Edamura, a conman, who travels the world and gets involved in various scams and mysteries. The anime is streaming worldwide on Netflix. Director Hiro Kaburagi and writer Ryota Kosawa spoke to ANN about their work on the series and their thoughts on creating an “international” anime.

(Ryota Kosawa): You've previously directed anime that feature primarily non-Japanese characters. Is there anything you're particularly conscious about when portraying people of different countries?

This time I was conscious about giving balanced roles to both the male and female characters, as well as giving diverse roles to characters across different races. I took care to ensure that even the villains aren't defined by their nationality or race, and I tried as much as possible to make the characters hard to hate. In the end, for better or worse, what's important is whether the characters stand out or don't stand out.

This time, I was particularly conscious of creating something that viewers around the world can enjoy (laughs).

What was it like working with a writer who's primarily known for his live-action work? Did you ever feel like you had to reign in ideas that were difficult to implement in a television anime, or did you enjoy the challenge?

Working with Mr. Kosawa was a very good experience. When I read his scripts, I thought it was interesting how he left so much leeway for the actors to interpret the nuance of the lines and incorporate their own movements. Normally when it comes to anime, the script is a little more fleshed out. I think it's because there's a different amount of freedom when it comes to adlibs, pauses, and acting.

For me, the air race in Case 2 was the biggest challenge. My blood ran cold at the script stage, but I patted my chest in relief when MADBOX [a 3DCG studio] joined the project focusing on the race scene.

This is just between us, but the script for the final episode had “The streets of Roppongi get destroyed ostentatiously” written in it, but no matter how much we tried to make it work, it would have taken more calories than usual, so we scaled it down to the destruction of a single building.

Was the process of creating a series for Netflix any different than working for television broadcast?

For a normal television series, it is difficult to deliver every episode before the date of the first broadcast, but I'm glad this time we were given a schedule that allowed us to make the delivery just in time. (And we were able to do it!)

Also, Great Pretender [henceforth GP] has a lot of characters who can speak multiple languages, so the non-Japanese languages were mainly dubbed overseas and mixed with the audio at sound editing stage. Of course, if we could find suitable people in Japan that's a different story, but that's rather difficult in the present state. As for who puts in the money for those parts, I think it comes from the Netflix budget, and there's an understanding from companies related to the work from the Japanese side. I'm very grateful that an environment was established where we could easily create the anime.

How did you get the idea for the anime's visual style? Did you have any particular live-action or anime inspirations?

In an earlier anime I directed, My Little Monster, I experimented with background art in the style of woodblock prints, but I figured that I could try something that delves a little further. That was the starting point behind the visual style I chose this time.

During the preparation stage for GP, I went to an Aoyama Book Center in Roppongi, and in the Western literature corner I saw a Brian Cook artbook. As I recall, I bought a number of his Vintage Britain books. I thought that Brian's use of simplified colors and backgrounds was really interesting, and I found myself wondering if the atmosphere was compatible with anime.

What did you keep in mind when portraying each new location depicted in the anime?

Because each Case was set in a place that gets a relatively high number of tourists, the first thing I did was gather information online. The backgrounds are an important element, but I also tried to study up on the foods and customs. But there are so many cases where our research was lacking, so there are mistakes that we overlooked here and there. If only we could have connected with fans overseas and exchanged all sorts of information… That's something I want to do next time.

As for the backgrounds, the seasons change with each Case, so the colors and saturation were adjusted in minute detail accordingly. Personally, I tried to convey a feeling of atmosphere and ambiance that would make people who saw it want to visit the countries depicted.

What sort of instructions did you give to the background art team?

When creating the image boards and backgrounds, I took the shape and the atmosphere of the colors and so forth from the Brian Cook artbook. As a result, when it was combined with the individual quirks of the individual background artists, it was interesting how the background art style of the current GP got developed.

Were there any concerns that Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's character designs would clash with the background art style?

Because the story is based on the real world, I wasn't worried that Mr. Sadamoto's character designs would clash with the background art style. If anything, I had more apprehensions that the colors would clash rather than the designs. It's the job of the “color design” section to coordinate the colors in the characters (cels) with the art boards. Yuko Kobari, who performed the color design for GP, wracked her brain whenever she was deciding the colors for each scene (laughs).

This is a bit off-topic, but when it comes to the issue of realism, the roles that have a close relationship with the backgrounds are the painting (also known as “finishing”) and compositing (also known as “photography”) roles. They imagine and extrapolate what the final image will look like from the art board, and figure out how to make use of the backgrounds. Painting and compositing is a task that relies on the artists' sensibilities, I think.

When did you get the idea to use the Freddie Mercury song as the ED theme and make the visuals focus on his cats?

When I was in my teens, I listened to Queen and became a fan of Freddie Mercury. This is something that probably any fan wonders about (laughs), but I honed my craft while thinking, “If he were alive, I wonder what kind of videos would delight him?” Also, I loved the music video of The Great Pretender, so I made an homage to it.

Anyway, I hope he's up there in heaven liking that video, saying, “Not bad.”

(For Ryota Kosawa) What makes you interested in writing stories about confidence men?

I've always liked films about con games like The Sting and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It's very difficult to write a script for this genre so it needed courage, but I decided to challenge myself with it. If you put off the things you want to do for later, then your life will end before you know it, after all.

Is it difficult to make swindlers the heroes of a story? What sort of considerations do you take to ensure the audience will root for the "bad guys"?

To make the audience sympathize with the protagonist, it's not so important for them to be “good” or “evil” so much as “likable” or “unlikable.” You can even like a villain if you can think of them as endearing, hard to hate, or understandable. So when it came to the protagonist Edamura, I tried to express as much of his psychological movements, his worries, and his internal conflicts as possible. Also, even though he's a swindler, I gave him a gullible personality. Nobody can hate a character who makes them laugh, after all.

For characters like Edamura, their English speaking ability is an important trait. To what extent were you involved in the voice actor casting?

I wasn't involved in the casting at all. I left it all to the hands of others, and was very satisfied with the pitch-perfect performance.

Edamura collects capsule toys from around the world. What was the inspiration behind this motif?

It's because I like it. I think that Japan's capsule toys are of wonderful quality and a point of pride across the world, so I wanted them to travel with Edamura around the world.

Edamura is inspired by the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi. What led to the decision to incorporate this famous figure in particular?

History is always a mix of fact and fiction. There are oftentimes when the things that we were taught as historical fact are revealed to be fictional creations as research on the subject progresses.

Because it is history, it is a sham. Because he is a great man of history, he may also be a conman. That is something I think about a lot.

Abigail's backstory is surprisingly heavy. Were there any worries about whether it would be appropriate for a television anime?

I think it was a necessary background for Abigail's character. By conveying it alongside the flash air race and the light-hearted casino scam, I also think that it doesn't come off as too dark.

Something which stands out to me is how Edamura is treated by the non-Japanese characters. For example, they have trouble pronouncing his name, and sometimes he gets mistaken for a Korean or Chinese person. To what extent do you think about these kinds of cultural misunderstandings when you write stories with an international cast?

I intended it simply as a humorous expression. Honestly, I wish I could do more of these cultural misunderstanding jokes, but I'm not knowledgeable enough. I hope that we can laugh as we learn about each other's cultures.

Were you particularly conscious of how this anime would be released worldwide on Netflix to a different audience compared to your usual work?

It was one of the things I was looking forward to. I normally work on live-action dramas, but one of the reasons I wanted to challenge myself by working on an anime was because I wanted viewers from all around the world to see my work without bias. I am looking forward to the reaction.

(For both) Have you had the opportunity to watch NYAV Post's English dub for the series? If so, what did you think of it?

KABURAGI: It replicated the acting to such a high level; it felt really close to watching it in Japanese! The voice actors were very expressive, and I'm sure that they will do justice to GP for English-speaking viewers around the world. As I had fun watching the footage, I found myself thinking, “It might be interesting to redo some of the character expressions for the English dub…”

At this point, I should give my thanks… to the greatest performance!

KOSAWA: I haven't seen it yet. I think that there are some points that are difficult to translate, but I am looking forward to it.

Which of the locations depicted in the anime have you personally visited?

KABURAGI: I went location scouting in Chicago and Canada for my previous work, 91 Days. For GP, I went around the Asakusa and Roppongi areas in Tokyo, as well as Kyoto temples like the Ryōan-ji and Kiyomizu-dera. I went to Singapore's Marina Bay Sands area and around Hollywood. If the budget and schedule allowed for it, I would have liked to go to London and Paris. When the coronavirus situation calms down, I'm personally thinking of going on a GP anime pilgrimage.

KOSAWA: I have visited almost all of them. I decided to set the story in places I have been to, as well as places that I like.

Finally, do you have a message for the international viewers of Great Pretender

KABURAGI: I am stoked that this work has received so much such support in both Japan and overseas. By streaming this anime online to viewers around the world, I am extremely happy that I could see the reactions of all the fans. As a representative of the GP staff, I extend my gratitude to you all. Thank you so much! Also, if the circumstances allow for it, I am really looking forward to a new anime that's even better for all of you!

Oh, and if you want to see a GP sequel, do be sure to tell your friends and acquaintances about it, so that you can increase the viewer count on Netflix! (laughs)

Now then, let us see each other again someday!

KOSAWA: Every country is dealing with difficulties relating to the coronavirus, but in the meantime, why don't you try watching this story about swindlers whose exploits happen around the world? It might give you an invigorating feeling. I hope you enjoy it.

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