“Ocean’s 11” on steroids: “GREAT PRETENDER” is the perfect anime for westerners who don’t like anime

Mei Ono, Copy/Layout Editor

Netflix failed. It failed to give its Wit Studio-directed original series, perhaps the greatest animated series of the year, the publicity it deserved. Now no one knows about it, and it seems like I alone am stuck with the task of trying to convince everyone to watch this fresh, comical, downright over-the-top and fascinating show called “GREAT PRETENDER.” Now is the perfect time to abandon plans to watch any other show on your list, since the fourth and last “case” or section of this season is having its international release tomorrow, and it’s the best one yet. 

If the name “GREAT PRETENDER” sounded familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of Freddie Mercury’s cover of the original song by The Platters, and you’d be right since it plays at the ending of each episode and the series itself is a great representation of Mercury’s interpretation of the lyrics. The Hollywood movie-inspired show begins with Makoto Edamura, a young con artist who believes himself to be Japan’s greatest conman, making profits from swindling the vulnerable and elderly. Or until he himself is swindled by French con artist Laurent Thierry into taking part in an elaborate plot set in Los Angeles to con a big-time film producer and mafia don out of millions. Edamura finds that Laurent is joined by two other con artists, Cynthia Moore and Abigail Jones, in his high-stake heists.

As character-centered as this show is, their designs do not disappoint in any aspect whatsoever. The contrast between the saturated backgrounds and the lower-saturation palette used for the cast makes it easy to follow during action scenes. All four of the main characters are unique and endearing in their own rights, from innocent, clumsy Edamura, persuasive and quick-witted Laurent, to charismatic big sister Cynthia and the blunt, taciturn athlete Abigail, their chemistry allows them to play off each other in exciting ways that’ll keep you on your toes. But these descriptions are only representative of who each character appears to be on the surface level. Each of the four cases follows the tragic but beautifully-crafted backstories of the main cast and how their pasts led them to become con artists; all the while delivering thrilling, action-packed chronicles of the team swindling the rich and corrupted with the entire world as the stage. 

Like I mentioned with the backgrounds, perhaps the most recognizable feat of this show is its unforeseen and unforgettable visuals. Wit Studio really took their art direction to a whole new level with its vibrant colors and shifting palettes that harmonize with each scene. The saturation makes it feel like you’re living in a pop-art universe that also reminds you of palette knife oil paintings with some of its background textures. At best, you’ll only be scrambling for desktop wallpapers every other episode.

One more aspect that many animation studios are currently struggling with that was perfectly executed with “GREAT PRETENDER” is its seamless integration of 3D models into 2D animation. The dramatic camerawork from navigating narrow alleyways to planes racing past monuments in Marina Bay Sands is one nearly impossible and at best, impractical to replicate in real life, and the show makes brilliant use of 3D models to achieve this. 

If it wasn’t already obvious from their use of Mercury’s original recording in their ending credits, the music in this show is like none other. Music director Yutaka Yamada delivers jazz fusion heaven for all 14 and soon 23 episodes to come. Its beautiful original songs, all of which are in English, along with bits of classical but mostly jazz, are timed perfectly with dialogue and action scenes for a wonderfully cinematic experience. The unmatched style of music is reminiscent of the classic 90’s anime “Cowboy Bebop” for those who are familiar with it, and the soundtrack from “GREAT PRETENDER” is the best since. 

When you sit down to watch the first couple episodes, you might be under the impression that you have the rest of the act figured out. Having grown up indulging in mystery and crime across various fictional mediums myself, I was totally guilty of this. And how wrong I was. The narrative successfully deceives both the audience, the targeted rich and the con artists themselves; adding just enough twists to force the con team to keep adapting without seeming out of the blue or spiraling the story out of control. 

What helps with this is its sparing use of dramatic irony for maximum effect, telling the story from both the perspective of the con team and the villain, which makes it all the more thrilling knowing that everyone is lying to each others’ face thinking that they’re the ones in control. Some of the tactics pulled off by the team are ridiculous to say the least, but delivered in such a convincing way that every second seems real. 

Personally, I think a big factor that determines the quality of a show’s narrative is how they draw the line between good and evil. “GREAT PRETENDER” follows the current cinematic trend and does an exceptional job of blurring this line, as neither side’s actions are completely justified nor their intentions utterly wicked. Laurent, the mastermind of the crew, is a fan-favorite character but also comes off as morally ambiguous: He’s crazy manipulative, going as far as to put Edamura through immeasurable despair to achieve his desired result.

Even so, for a show with criminals as its cast, the villains need to be that much worse for the protagonists to be likeable, and it does just that. While each case’s villain is corrupted by money, they have believable aspirations and are witty enough to convince the viewers that they aren’t in their position of power for nothing. 

Although I can only speak for the shadier underbelly of L.A. and the futuristic atmosphere of Marina Bay Sands, the locations of each case aren’t just shallow depictions of tourist hotspots but fit right into the region’s mood. The awful L.A. traffic and the tone of LAX in Case One really hit home for me, and it could be thanks to screenwriter Ryota Kosawa actually having visited L.A. before that might have helped with the accuracy.

The show’s downsides are few in number and fairly minor. I found the integration of Abigail’s backstory in Case Two somewhat forced, and it didn’t have as much of a direct connection to the heist as it could have. Otherwise, the first 14 episodes thus far have been nothing short of groundbreaking. 

With its riveting climaxes, misdirections and drop-dead gorgeous visuals, “GREAT PRETENDER” is, to put it simply, a lot of fun. There’s never a dull moment in a comedy-crime show where the studio wastes no time getting straight to the action with not a single out-of-place scene or excessive character. Usually I would recommend shows based on what people have previously watched and liked, but “GREAT PRETENDER” is for sure one that I won’t hesitate to recommend to anyone. Especially for those who have never seen an anime in their entire life and for whatever reason have something against it, pretend like you don’t just this once.