One of the newest shows to be released from Netflix jail is a stylish crime drama from the studio behind Attack on Titan and the director of 91 Days, Kimi ni Todoke, and My Little Monster. It feels like Mappa and Studio Wit switched bodies, the former taking over for the final season of Titan and the latter working on a show that feels exactly like something Mappa would make. Far be it from me to call this an identity crisis, however, as Wit is in top form with this one. After so many works following in the aesthetic footsteps of Attack on Titan, The Great Pretender stands as a great reminder of the versatility of the studio.
Makoto Edamura is a con artist operating out of Japan. He’s young but he has a natural talent for reading people. He’s also overly confident, considering himself Japan’s greatest scam artist. That is until he encounters Laurent Thierry, a Frenchman, and a fellow scam artist, or, “confidence man”, but who operates around the globe. When the two of them meet and Edamura ends up on the receiving end of a scam, he follows the Frenchman to America, intent on getting his money back and evading the police. He tags along with Laurent for his next big scam: selling a phony drug to a Hollywood mob boss with the help of Abby, a stand-offish young woman playing the role of a ditsy foreign girl to get close to the target. Edamura and Laurent make a bet. Whoever proves themself the better scam artist will make the other their assistant.
So begins the first of The Great Pretender‘s four cases. Case 1, The Los Angeles Connection, introduces the large cast of characters and the huge scope of the story through the eyes of Edamura, someone who realizes that no matter how much they thought they knew about conning people, they didn’t know the half of it. It’s a game of chess between him and Laurent, as they both make big moves to try and sell a drug that doesn’t exist. Though, more accurately, it’s a game of chess where it becomes clear that one is significantly more crafty than the other.
Edamura’s people skills and his well-studied work ethic makes him effective at understanding people enough to convince them to open up to him, but it’s the larger and more complex lies that he is a novice to, and where Laurent makes himself appear a step above. Half the enjoyment came from watching what kind of Ocean’s Eleven stunts he’d pull to cover their assess. By the end of the first case, the chess game itself isn’t as important as what was learned as a result of it. As an introduction to the story through the eyes of the main character, it’s clear throughout that he’s along for the ride; a small part of a plan much larger than him.
It’s a thoughtful way of beginning the show and to challenge the protagonist. I love Edamura’s arc and the role he assumes in the team beyond the first case. He comes from a troubled past. Family tragedies and controversies, no shortage of misunderstandings, and the sins of the father being visited by the son. Edamura was labeled and ended up becoming what society thought he was. He doubled down and became confident in his abilities. However, he was naive to the big leagues of the con game. He goes from a loud-mouthed braggart to someone who questions the morality of his craft and acts far more carefully.
One of the most impressive things about The Great Pretender is how the story changes from case to case. This doesn’t simply apply to the variety in setting and story, but how the implied interim between arcs ages the characters. The end of Case 1 signals a major growth in Edamura that is paid off in the second after a time-skip. Edamura becomes the emotional core of the team of con artists, helping them to resolve their hangups that are conflicting with the job at hand. It helps that the people being scammed are typically some pretty detestable jerks, so Edamura reconciles his conflicting feelings towards his craft by knowing that he is helping people.
Case 2, Singapore Sky, follows the team as they scam the two former princes behind a rigged air-racing competition, with everything staked on their own pilot, Abby, as well as a fake gambling parlor to trap the elder brother – Sam. However, things get complicated when Abby starts to become distracted at the arrival of a man with ties to the slaughter of her people in the Iraq War. As the race nears the finals, Edamura tries to keep her focused on the main goal, while also helping her to reconcile his past.
Edamura and Abby’s relationship is strained from the get-go. Abby is a very independent person and not exactly trusting of others. In The Los Angeles Connection case, she doesn’t see the three of them (her, Edamura, and Laurent) as a team. “Team” sounds too friendly for her. If Case 1 was about Edamura, then Case 2 is definitely about Abby and her coming to acknowledge the group as her team. Edamura, having reconciled his past, decides that his goal as a con artist is to strive for the best outcome for those involved. He shows a lot more empathy and it extends past helping victims of those they are scamming, but also his teammates. I enjoy how, even if still hostile at times, Edamura and Abby warm up to each other.
Case 3, the last one of the first part available on Netflix, is a more personal con, focused on deceiving a famous art appraiser in London using an elusive piece known as the Snow of London, of which the case is named after. The central character is Cynthia Moore, who is integral to the previous two cases, but becomes a far more fleshed-out character in this arc. Much time is spent on her younger days before becoming a con woman; the days when she aspired to be an actress and then fell in love with a struggling painter. Her vendetta against James Coleman, the target of the con, drudges up old memories and joins her back together with her old flame for a touching character study.
Of the principal cast, the only player that feels severely underdeveloped is Laurent. He has a certain allure to him at first, being this suave, chaotic-good, bisexual-coded fox, but apart from being the brains behind some truly clever plays, his presence isn’t captivating enough to have the allure of other characters of his ilk. In my first impressions of Millionaire Detective, for instance, I pointed out how despite Daisuke Kanbe’s somewhat cool and collected demeanor, he has an incredible presence that makes him interesting. Laurent should have a similar aura about him, but he feels overtaken by the other characters, and arguably, that’s a good thing.
So many times a promising show comes along with a big cast and doesn’t develop any of them into something more than what they offered aesthetically. The Great Pretender understands the importance of the main cast versus supporting characters and villains. It assigns a character to each arc and lets that story be theirs in addition to paying off several compelling side stories, be it an air race between two old rivals, the relationship between a gangster and his estranged son, or the concern a bystander has for a friend at the whim of a manipulative monster. This show economizes the screentime of its cast better than a lot of shows and for that reason, I’m not too disappointed with Laurent feeling underdeveloped, especially when I get the feeling that payoff is coming very soon.
As typical of Netflix releases, this is only the first half of the show. Thankfully, they didn’t just chop it off at 12 episodes. They had the good sense to wait until the end of case three before ending. There are nine episodes left in the season and they are all one case. It’s gonna be huge and the way Case 3 ended, I do not doubt all that Laurent will have his time to shine. This is one of those times where I’m happy to say that I’m content waiting for the second half of a Netflix anime release. Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long to arrive. The final case is supposed to release on Japanese Netflix in September.
Director Hiro Kaburagi has created an adult drama that hones in on the western market to the point that I’d call it the pinnacle of what Netflix has strived to achieve with its original programming. From the references to western pop culture to the international scale of the story to the nuanced approach to subtexts of sexism and misogyny, The Great Pretender is a show with western audiences in mind. Netflix has attempted to corner this market before but to varying effect. B: The Beginning was beautiful and had a mix of cop drama and supernatural spectacle that should have made it a hit, but it was felled by its lack of marketing and the admittedly confusing storytelling. It might be too early to tell how this show will be remembered, but it’s already scoring higher compared to other Netflix Originals with a similar aim. Studio Wit even scored the license to use Freddy Mercury’s cover of The Great Pretender as the ending theme, a pretty big draw if you ask me.
Kaburagi’s other works, namely 91 Days and My Little Monster, stand out to me for the aesthetics they offer and the atmosphere created by both that harbored great character moments. I will admit that I only finished the latter and found it to be an endearing and adorable romance, be it one with some humor that hasn’t aged well at all. I still get recommendations to watch the former all the time and I think Kaburagi has a talent for character dramas. Consistently, one of the most contentious aspects of character dramas is the thing I talked about earlier: economizing character screen-time and development. It is a big boon to this series that such a thing is handled well. Of course, this is equally a praise of the writing.
Ryouta Kosawa only has one other writing credit and it is for a CG animated film that has pretty low ratings on MAL. So imagine how surprising it is to see him attached to such a high-profile project writing a quirky adult crime drama. There isn’t anything necessarily avant-garde in the execution, but it produced enough memorable character moments that the prospect of him not writing more in the future is unthinkable. The biggest flaw I can find in the script is at the start of the show. Edamura goes from running away from potential arrest by the authorities to immediately committing to traveling to America with the guy who stole money from him. It felt very… rushed.
Great Pretender doesn’t just read good on paper, it also looks good, in a way I can’t say I’ve seen before. It might have the most unique look I’ve seen in a while. Yuuko Kabari was the color designer, responsible for Redline, Space Dandy, and Rolling Girls, all shows that I associate with exceptional use of color. I would say that Pretender follows in the lead of The Rolling Girls‘ color design most, another Studio Wit production. The background art paints vivid portrayals of the show’s locales with distinctive color palettes that seem almost unnatural in the way they convey the mood of the locales. London is a sea of grays and dark blues, but LA is bright yellow, and Singapore is a marriage of warm reds and cool purples. Yuusuke Takeda, the art director, has worked on Gankutsuo, Guilty Crown, Eden of the East, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and my favorite film of 2019, Penguin Highway.
I watched The Great Pretender through the English dub and I wasn’t disappointed. Alan Lee’s performance as Edamura was all-around entertaining, like a young Johnny Yong Bosch, to the point that sometimes I forgot it wasn’t him. My favorite performance had to be Kausar Mohammed’s as Abby. The whole time I was convinced I’d heard her voice before, but this is the first time I’ve heard her voice acting. Regardless, she’s a natural and I hope to hear her in more down the line. She’s a TV actress as well so it’s no surprise she’s talented but sometimes screen actors don’t transition well to voice acting.
The most impressive things about the dub are the things that it does that are so rare for dubs. Some of it is out of necessity mind you, but other things were genuinely cool choices. Even with the dub selected, the first episode starts completely in Japanese, with actors speaking their best English around characters like Laurant. Passed a certain threshold, the show breaks the fourth wall, and depending on if you are watching dubbed or subbed says “everything from here on will be translated to [language of your choice].” Even beyond that point though, there are plenty of moments where people are speaking French or Japanese for the sake of the context in a scene. The dub is handled extremely well in that regard, though there are still those funny moments when everyone is speaking fluent English and someone will look at Edamura and be like “your English is shit.”
As for the music, the sound changes slightly between each case. Jazz is abundant across all three, but there are touches of hip hop in Case 1 and pop music in Case 3. Yutaka Yamada composed the score for the series, the same man who composed the score for the Tokyo Ghoul series and Vinland Saga. The score can suffer the same issue I’ve seen in shows like ID: Invaded, where there are vocal insert songs, the lyrics of which feel generic; a parody of insert songs in film/TV. For the most part, the jazzy soundtrack does a competent job of setting the tone, but there was nothing that ever truly stuck in my memory.
I will forgo a final rating until the second and final half has been released. What I will say is that, of all the western-inspired/western-targeted anime dramas Netflix has produced, The Great Pretender feels like the best-case scenario. It isn’t lacking in polish or character like Hero/Mask and unlike B: The Beginning, I can foresee it being remembered fondly. But, a lot of the legacy this series has will depend on how it sticks the landing in the final case. Can the show raise the stakes and capture my attention? Can it make the story one worth remembering in the end? Regardless, I think it’s worth the time to check out. Unlike the cons themselves, there are no losers with this one.
The Great Pretender, Cases 1 through 3 (episodes 1-14) are available for legal streaming through Netflix.
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