Netflix Has a Winner
“You should always try to do the right thing, become a benefit to society, and earn the respect of every person you meet.”
We all strive to become a benefit to society… that’s why I write reviews on the internet, and I do so with confidence. Welcome, it’s your #1 (self-proclaimed) confidence reviewer Jon Spencer! Today, we’ll be discussing Great Pretender, and let me tell ya “This baby can hold so much thematic depth that it’s even a detriment at times”. *Slaps keyboard* gzdfb; send review.
The best place to start when discussing the Great Pretender is, unsurprisingly, the beginning. Makoto Edamura is Japan’s number one con artist, or so he claims. However, when his latest mark ends up scamming him, he finds himself caught up in an international fraud ring pulling confidence games greater than he ever could imagine. Does Makoto have what it takes to survive these dangerous shenanigans, and does he even want to reap the extravagant benefits of a dishonest life?
Edamura’s motivations are often dictated by the broken relationship with his father and deep attachment to his mother. His idolization of his father, to him the paragon of morality, instills a great sense of justice within him. That’s why, a lot of the schemes and ploys Edamura partakes in reserve a sense of Kharmatic justice. Being complicit in Laurent’s plans only because they target unjust and unfair individuals in society. Edamura grows to become conscientious of the consequences of his actions and advocates for those who may get caught in the crossfire.
While Edamura still holds the teachings of his old man in high regard, the man himself is a different story. After his father was exposed of his hypocrisy, participating in his own scandal and seeming to abandon his family in the aftermath; This causes Edamura’s world view to crumble, creating a distrust in others. And yet, his mother departs to him the value of forgiveness on her deathbed, as she’s forgiven their father long ago.
This dichotomy can be seen throughout the series as he interacts with our principal cast: Laurent, Abigail, and Cynthia. In many ways Laurent represents everything Edamura’s father became, he’s even referred to as “the blond asshole” by most of the cast. Despite Laurent’s justifications for his actions, Edamura challenges them as being a facade for his own greed. A bulk of the anime’s conflict comes from this argument over what is “right” between these two characters.
Abigail is in many ways the polar opposite of Edamura. Often giving others a cold shoulder, Abby is someone who is self-assured but ultimately hostile and dissociative to the cruel world around her. While both are opposites in personality, they both spend the second arc of the show learning to respect each other. This is achieved thanks to the words imparted on Edamura from his mother.
Cynthia’s storyline invokes themes of accepting change, and choosing forgiveness for individuals as opposed to Abby’s story which focuses more on the broader society. Thrust into the artworld after Edamura’s mistake, the gang sees the impact that art and artists can have on our communities. This benefit is under scrutiny as the abundance of forgeries and dishonest art curators becomes clear. However, through the passion of Cynthia’s ex-lover dedicated soul infusing forgery, Edamura is able to come to understand the value of dedication and how people grow over time, changing, but never really changing.
All of this culminates in the final story the Great Pretender has to offer. During this climatic caper, Edamura’s father steps back into the story where they must settle the history between them. As expected, this is not smooth sailing as Edamura slips further away from the noble ambitions of the crew, embracing a genuine life of crime with the Yakuza. Put into a corrupt position of power, Edamura assumes the role of following in his father’s footsteps focusing more on his own self interests and gain.
In the end, it’s all wrapped up in a nice little bow. Everyone learns their lessons, forgiveness is given, and in many ways it’s a satisfying enough experience. As was mentioned at the start of this review, there is a strong thematic through line that persists throughout the anime’s run. However, this is also Great Pretender’s biggest weakness.
Unfortunately, this commitment to the theming invites predictability and repetition beyond what you would normally find present in international crime capers. It’s not a surprise that the crew pulls off some incredible feats, this is expected after all, but when it’s coupled with the broader beats of the narrative being some kind of parallel to the existing case, you can see how this may lead to issues.
One of the best examples to illustrate this issue is in how often the show relies on dramatic death scenes only to turn things around and reveal it was all a ruse, nobody died. The excuse for this being tied to a thematic revelation between Edamura and his father. While this bolsters the emotional concepts, and ultimately the point Great Pretender aims to make, it strays from being as engaging as it otherwise could be.
Abiding by the conventional narrative effectively cheapens the impact certain elements could have. You don’t have to look much further than the new addition to the cast in the show’s final arc. This character is introduced rather organically and is far from a complete detriment to the show. The new cast member is arguably one of the most fascinating and poignant in terms of how she reframes the previous events of the story along with bolstering the existing cast’s motivations. That said, her role is essentially to serve the archetype and by retreading previous beats, it comes off as a little underwhelming, dare I say disappointing in the ways they end up using this character in such predictable fashions.
Even with all that said, there’s plenty of positives to be found. One of the more unique aspects of the show can be seen in its first episode, across both language tracks. There’s a commitment to representing this international cast with their own languages and accents, and while it’s imperfect, it’s something I’d personally love to see more of. Sadly, this gimmick is dropped part way through the first episode and not really explored again until the final arc of the show where some characters speak Chinese.
Great Pretender isn’t the first anime to do this, and I imagine it’ll be far from the last, but it adds a great deal of depth and believability to the story that would normally be absent. It’s not uncommon for Japanese dubs to stick strictly to Japanese and for the English adaptation to do much the same, the main difference maybe being an occasional accent.
Given that Netflix was involved with getting this project off the ground, I can’t help but think that this more internationally focused angle was considered early in its production. If you’ve been following Netflix’s adventures into anime production (or at least the funding of), you’ll see they tend to have a specific image for what they think anime should be defined as. Usually it’s something more “Western” with a fair bit of edge.
While it’s true that this series does fall into the president to some degree, it felt distinctive compared to the other “originals” in the library barring the few existing exceptions. If this becomes a trend for future productions on the platform, allowing for more varied stories with increased effort, then the few complaints mentioned above are well worth the sacrifice.
The anime furthers its Western appeal through the remarkable Opening and Endings. The ending song is almost instantly iconic, as it uses the performance of Freddy Mercury singing the song of the same name. The song originally by The Platters also fits a lot of the thematic beats, pretending to be alright in the face of grief. The opening is a nice jazz instrumental with visuals that evoke the recognizable style of Saul Bass.
Being the most recognizable graphic designers, having some of the most imaginative film posters and opening sequences of all time; Bass and his wife Elaine specialized in typography and cut-out silhouettes that would often convey what the film entails. Great Pretender also achieves this, as its opening conveys each arc of the show in some snappy visuals.
Bass is a designer that almost everyone has at least some familiarity with his work, even if they are unaware of it. Most movie watchers will have been exposed to Bass through the works of esteemed directors: Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorscese. Even if you want to be coy and pretend you don’t watch a lot of classic films then you still have seen a Bass design. Quaker Oats, Dixie Cup, Kleenex, Girl Scouts of America, and AT&T all owe their original logo designs to Bass.
Great Pretender evokes the work of Saul Bass, to instill a sense of universal appeal. This anime isn’t your typical affair, but instead is one that can be enjoyed by more international audiences. It’s a more traditional story that doesn’t have some of the same trappings and motifs of your average Otaku affair. Not to say that this can’t be enjoyed by huge anime watchers, but it’s broad appeal is maybe its most effective selling point.
Despite the rough edges present in Great Pretender, Netflix clearly has a winning title on its hands which is a nice change of pace compared to the usual “Netflix Original” offerings. Hopefully, this speaks to a trend in the several upcoming anime from Netflix as we move into the following year but only time will tell.
What are your thoughts on Great Pretender? Do you want to see another season? Let me know your thoughts in the comments! If you want to support the work I’m doing here please consider a donation via one of the buttons below. Thanks for reading and see you again soon!