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This Week in Anime
Great Pretender is a Devious Joyride
by Steve Jones & Monique Thomas,
Wit Studio's latest anime is a jet-setting affair starring con artists and the scummy jerks who had it coming. The original series stars Makoto "Edamame" Edamura, a small-time crook that quickly finds himself pulled into the high-stakes world of fleecing millionaires alongside the devious Laurent. Also, did we mention there are cats?
Steve Nicky, for this introduction, I really wanted to create the textual equivalent of Freddie Mercury in a shiny white suit jumping through a giant curtain that reads “THE GREAT PRETENDER.” However, despite today's subject, this is definitely one case where no reproduction can top the real thing. So here we go!
Nicky I mean, having an animated cat version of it is almost as good. I'm certain Mr. Mercury would approve, anyways.
Oh I have a pretty good hunch he'd be fine with it.
Anyways, we're not just here to talk about a certain famous cover by a famous rockstar. We're here to talk about anime. Great Pretender is the latest outing produced by Studio Wit and distributed by Netflix. It's kind of hard to describe how absolutely glamourous this show is. From it's OP/ED smash combo, to it's awesome jazz soundtrack, to it's beautiful and stunning backgrounds of LA, Singapore, Paris, and London. This show takes it's heist premise and really makes a run for its money.
It's one hell of an auspicious production! And actually, before we start digging into the show proper, I just wanna say—as someone who has learned to approach the phrase “Netflix Original Anime” with equal parts fear and trepidation—this is a home run. Whether you value my taste in anime (which is questionable) or my expertise in crappy Netflix shows (which, thanks to TWIA, is unimpeachable), please heed these words and check Great Pretender out. There are some delicious twists and turns in here that I would not want to ruin for you without prefacing the column like this. And if you're still on the fence, please let me reiterate: its ED contains a Freddie Mercury song and singing cartoon cats.
And it earns it!! A good OP or ED doesn't always make a show but the show absolutely lives up to them and that's saying a lot when you're holding yourself up against such a king, who is wearing his heart like a crown.
It also helps that the subject of the show is near and dear to my twisted heart. For whatever reason, I've always loved stories about con artists, whether real or fictional. I just think they're neat. And despite the clown car full of them that is our country's current governing body, I was pleased to discover I can still love these smug bastards in the right context.
It also helps that the people they're conning are the despicable filthy rich people who are definitely ruining said country. If I were to make a comparison, Great Pretender is about as loveable as your average Lupin the Third series. They're bad guys but also good guys. And as time has told, more Lupin is never a bad thing even if it's got some serial numbers filed off.
The other immediately viewer-friendly thing about Great Pretender is its structure. This first season is divided into three story arcs of about equal, movie-equivalent length, and this naturally lends itself to Netflix's binge model. I watched the whole thing over the weekend in just three sittings—one for each arc. It was a breeze!
I think the other thing, and this is one of the things that really benefit from having a Netflix model, is that it's also got a very good dub! The characters are all jive and fast-talking like they should. I don't watch dubs too often but this time it felt really appropriate to be able to hear all the different inflections between the characters as they're giving the viewer the low-down, and it really lends to this experience of being an international scheme directly from Hollywood, where the show's first arc settles.
Though, I guess you can also say it's hanging out.
It also does one of the coolest things I've seen a dub do, which is start out as a sub! The first ~10 minutes are still in Japanese even in the English track, after which it transitions into all-English (or all Japanese in the original). It's treated like a fun gag, which it kinda is, but it's also a cool way to reflect the multiculturalism and country-hopping nature of the story.
Though, admittedly, It's a bit embarrassing to hear the English VAs put on Engrish, it's a really neat trick and creates a suspension of disbelief even though characters are speaking perfect English the rest of the time when they shouldn't. I found myself flipping between the different languages a lot to whatever felt appropriate, which is definitely a fun time.
And the first arc in general is a super fun time that introduces our main cast via a constantly escalating series of cons. What starts out as a simple wallet swap spirals into a showdown at a secret Hollywood drug superlab, with our protagonist Makoto suffering all the way. It's delightful.
Our main character, Makoto goes from "Japan's top swindler" to a small fish in big waters. Going from trying to trick old ladies out of their money to getting lured into a trap set by a tricky frenchman, Laurent, to become his assistant. Laurent gives him a wager to see who is the best con-artist. Naturally, he's a bit in over his head.
"A bit" is putting it lightly considering he goes from posing as a water inspector to posing as Japan's most infamous opioid expert. That's what makes him a good "hero" to follow tho! He straddles the line between devoting his life to the grift and wishing for something more along the straight and narrow, but ethical boundaries can be tough to weave when you've got a hot French dude hitting on you and telling you to do Crimes.
Yes, Great Pretender can get pretty darn gay when it wants to.
Not that there aren't some good ladies too! Laurent has a pretty good crew in his pocket to help make a convincing argument against any stingy type that tries to question his credibility. It's their teamwork and dedication to the art of scamming that really make it interesting trying to put together all the moving parts.
Yeah Great Pretender really thrives on the strength of its characters. Especially Abbie.
She's Very Good.
The show has a very high quotient of birds being flipped, and Abbie serves about 80% of those.
Makoto even experiences how teamwork can help keep up an act as we discover that even the old lady and his partner-in-crime at the time were totally in on it when it came to getting him on a plane to LA in the first place. Which is good because the bad guys they're dealing with, like the mafia, are real bad guys.
And that's the angle each arc takes: Laurent's crew may be made up of a bunch of notorious swindlers, but their targets are always cartoonishly evil robber-barons almost begging to get their bloated fortunes swiped right under their noses.
You'd almost be tempted to call these scammers noble, like a modern-day Robin Hood and his Merry Men, if not for the fact that they definitely keep the money to themselves lol.
Hey, sometimes they do a little charity work, a poor waitress here, a struggling inn there! Also keeping up a big crew and having enough leeway to make the act believable is hard work.
I'm just saying: Cynthia owns her own island. You don't get island money by giving it all away. But they certainly DO commit to their scams, sometimes to the tune of millions of dollars of investment. They plan on earning it all back with interest, of course, but the ridiculous lengths they go to land their mark make the show that much more exciting to watch. I'm also very much NOT going to complain about a grift that involves the creation of an entire underground female boxing ring.
Thank you for the beef, Great Pretender.
Pictured: me, lookin at these images.
Did I mention they show an In-N-Out?! It's great.
Oh yeah, if you ever wanted to hear the phrase "Double-Double" uttered in an anime, Great Pretender has got you covered.
The writer, Ryota Kosawa, hasn't worked on very much anime, but whoever they are, they absolutely understand America.
Editor's Note: Kosawa is a super-famous Japanese live-action movie scriptwriter
Speaking of meat products. The villains are definitely hammy. The first villain is a movie producer who does nothing but make cheesy American samurai movies to cover for his extensive druglord-ing. We also have a Scummy Misogynistic foreign prince, and a Shitty Art Dealer who calls himself a Gentleman. Oh, and Cameo of El Presidente.
A little bit of wish-fulfillment.
You got that right. They make up a whole charcuterie board of Shitty Dudes who act like they have the world dangling on their little finger.
In a sense, they're very easy, safe targets for a story that steers clear of ethical gnarliness. But on the other hand, it's very satisfying to watch them squirm.
Haven't had this much fun watching shitty people go down since I watched someone play Hitman. Though none of the targets get outright murdered, watching them get totally humiliated is pretty satisfying.
Great Pretender's writing is also savvy enough to know that schadenfreude alone cannot sustain a show, so each story arc also focuses on one of the main 4 characters. By means of the current grift, we explore their backstories and motivations for becoming a con artist, filling in the rougher edges of the ensemble cast.
There's also some pretty good side characters that help empathize the themes of each arc. Not everyone in the show is a good person or a swindler but not all of them are totally irredeemable either. "The Los Angeles Connection" features the mafia don's Latino bodyguard and his young son, for example.
The show never steps away from it's mature themes and it's not particularly deep, but it's definitely dealing with enough empathy to be engaging to the adults watching.
Honestly one of my favorite aspects of the show is the compassion it holds for people who end up on the wrong side of the law because of the circumstances they're born into, like Salazar here.
It also goes into this with Makoto's background, where both his father's awful crime and his own unwitting participation in a scam company make him pretty much unemployable. It highlights how the justice system and society at large still care very little for the idea of restorative justice.
Really the only criminals Great Pretender holds absolute contempt for are the millionaires and billionaires who hoard their wealth and treat people like disposable garbage. And that's one hell of a resonant message to have in 2020, lol.
Though not all of those were a total hit for me. I personally wasn't a big fan of "Singapore Sky's" narrative of somehow forgiving the dude that BOMBED IRAQ and made a Batman out of our girl Abbie. Talk about contemporary, I think that's a little too soon, show.
Yeahhhh, the series is obviously inspired by Hollywood productions, for good and bad. And one very bad part is that it does like to tie a neat bow on everything, even when it's not deserved. Like, I know what they're going for with Abbie's backstory and putting her on the road to forgiveness, but AT BEST that's the kind of thing you have to earn by putting in the time necessary to make the emotional beats work. You can't just make this the B-plot.
I liked the arc overall and the overall message but that part didn't really land. However, it was great to see Wit and Co slap themselves on some planes.
And Cynthia's backstory in the third arc thankfully works much better. It's more gracefully integrated into the plot, it doesn't have to do with war crimes, and it gave me plenty of excuses to fawn over how beautiful her hair looks.
Yeah, the third arc definitely worked a lot better for me so 2/3 ain't bad. Plus, I'm a sucker for a narrative about a starving artist and the value of art. Ah yes, I too, want to make a fortune off of my solemn portrait of anime-girl facing left.
Turns out Cynthia's big secret is that, like so many of my friends, she's weak for twitchy English guys with messy hair and sharp features.
But yes, the arc overall lambasts the high-rolling world of fine art auctioneers and its thin veneer of respectability—basically by making this guy the biggest twat in existence.
Yet because he's the one who appraises the art, he's the one who dictates its monetary—and thus overall—value. Which we quickly learn is all fake.
It's also about dealing with literal imposter syndrome where the only time a living artist can make any money is if he's pretending to be a dead one.
Despite being the shortest one, I think it's my favorite arc, because its themes hew so closely to the fundamental ones about con artists. What is authenticity? What does it mean to create something? What does it mean to imitate something? Is art, by necessity, deceit? Is deceit therefore art? I think these questions are, in part, why I still find myself fascinated with stories about cons. It also echoes one of my favorite moments in the Monogatari series.
Shout out to my main man and con artist extraordinaire Kaiki Deishu.
This is definitely the monologue that was running through my head watching these last few episodes. Though, I'll note that this still isn't the whole show and we still have the last arc that is a whole whopping NINE episodes. While we've talked a bit about the other cast members, there's one the show has conveniently left out in all of this. So I'm assume all of these themes are building in favor of asking one question. Who, really is, The Great Pretender? The Mystery man. The Fabulous French dude. The dumb blonde asshole. Who The FUCK is Laurent Thierry?! Why is he doing this? and what the fuck does he want?
My dude's a sentient trollface.jpg, so I'm a little apprehensive about the rest of the show devoting itself to unraveling his mystery. Nonetheless, Great Pretender has certainly earned more than enough goodwill out of me, so I'm eager to see what feelings it can con out of me with its final emotional grift.
Moreover, I'm just eager to see more of the show because it's consistently, ridiculously gorgeous. Its backgrounds and scene composition have some of the most liberating application of color that I've seen in a show since JoJo's Part 4, or some episodes of Flip Flappers. A buffet for the eyes.
Wow, the Six Flags Bathroom where the cop practically sexually assaults you has never looked so good.
Also props to the OST composer, Yutaka Yamada, He did some great improvisational pieces for the Tokyo Ghoul soundtrack and that lead to some sick electric jazz tunes that give all the plotting some real high-stakes energy. Put that Cowboy in your Bebops, folks. Not to mention some great insert-songs as well. They're all banger, really.
The production through and through is polished as hell. Director Hiro Kaburagi must have taken what he learned from 91 Days and turned it into a brighter, more exciting, and all around better emulation of Hollywood thrillers by way of anime. It's easy to see why Netflix picked this one up, and it's an easier recommendation, even for normies who don't watch anime. Catch this one if you can!
Seconded! It's got mass appeal, looks good, a good dub and it's one of the most fun shows I've seen all season. It's gonna be hard waiting for that last batch to eventually drop in our laps on this side of the world, but so-far I don't feel like I've been cheated at all. And with that I say.
Good night, and may we all channel the raw power of drunk Cynthia as we wait for the finale.
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