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Weeb Analysis: Great Pretender: Wizard of Far East

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[Hello all and welcome to Weeb Analysis: a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are truly the classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. Sit back, get some sushi or ramen, and get ready to learn about anime.]

A couple of months ago, I gave a spotlight to an anime title called Great Pretender. The series, for those who may have forgotten it, centered on an international group of con-artists who pulled off grand capers, stealing from reprehensible criminals and keeping the wealth for themselves (most of the time at least). During each heist, we would delve into the backstory of one of the main crew as they wrestled with their demons in the present. My thoughts on the show? Well, I loved it.

I loved its international focus, its stunning visuals, lively characters, over-the-top action, its abundance of style, and its adherence to classic American heist thrillers. At the time, I called it my anime of the year, a statement I still stand by given what I saw and my frame of mind during that period. But I put a big caveat on my adoration of the show, one that I hoped and prayed wouldn’t come back to bite me later on: the show was incomplete.

Netflix has a very odd release structure with its anime shows. What would normally be streamed every week in Japan and simulcasted on streaming services like Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE is instead held back until Netflix can finish an English dub for it. Sometimes it takes weeks after a cour (Ed. Note – three month period of TV broadcast) of the show concludes, sometimes it takes months.

In the case of Great Pretender, Americans had to wait until November for the second cour to officially release in the States despite the show concluding back in the middle of September. Netflix may market it as a second season, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s the first season, just split into two halves. Think how The Walking Dead splits its seasons into two distinct chunks and you’ll get the idea.

So I hoped and prayed that the second half was as good as the first. Everything was there for it to continue to be a success story. No changes in director or animation crew members, no change in voice talent, no sudden changes due to COVID-19. All it needed to do was stick the landing and it would have performed a clean getaway. Unfortunately, not every heist goes by without a hitch, and as sad as it is to say, the second cour of Great Pretender, titled Wizard of Far East, got captured in the middle of the escape. It failed to pull off the perfect crime.

Like the previous cases in the first cour (“Los Angeles Connection,” “Singapore Sky,” and “Snow of London”), Wizard of Far East is a nine-episode heist where our gang of con-artists -featuring the Japanese Edamame, the Iraqi Abby, and the British Cynthia, still led by the narcissistic Frenchman Laurent- are tackling a conglomerate called the Suzuka Organization in Japan. The company is basically a front for the yakuza who primarily deal with human trafficking, specifically of the child variety. The Suzuka Organization is also up against a faction of the Chinese mafia that splintered from Suzuka. It’s a turf war over who has control over the Asian black market and Laurent wants in on it, although for more personal reasons.

Clocking in at nine episodes instead of the average four to five from last season, Wizard of Far East always ran the risk of being a bit too bloated for its own good. Even before the final arc premiered, I was worried about there being too little plot spread so thinly over the nine episodes and that’s… somewhat the case? The structure of this final arc is odd, to say the least, done in a way that stops most of the forward momentum the arc had going for it in its earlier half.

The first three and a half episodes are spent getting the pieces in place, getting each person exactly where they needed to be for the crime to go off successfully. Then the show stops for two and a half episodes to flesh out Laurent, the only main character who didn’t have any major development up until now, before spending two more episodes pulling off the case. Then the finale spends half of its runtime explaining exactly what happened in the penultimate episode, with the other half serving as an epilogue of sorts. If it sounds convoluted, that’s because it kind of is.

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I’ll admit, Great Pretender was never the best at telling a clean story. It usually went a mile a minute in order to deliver a fast-paced thriller, but every element felt essential. No scene was unnecessary, even if the intention of certain moments was a bit questionable. Wizard of Far East, by contrast, features several superfluous elements that don’t benefit the overall story. Instead, it just serves to distract from the main plot. New characters are introduced and fleshed out that, at the end of the day, don’t really serve as meaningful characters, but rather as plot devices.

Take the enigmatic Mr. Oz, who works as the interpreter for the Chinese mafia on their visit to Japan. It’s revealed fairly early on that Oz is actually Edamame’s father, the same father who was arrested for child sex trafficking. Since Edamame is the liaison for the Suzuka Organization as part of the heist, he has to spend time with his father. It’s ripe for plenty of deep discussions and can help give more depth to Edamame, or at least depth that doesn’t make me detest him (more on that in a bit).

Instead, the show uses Oz as a plot device to throw twist after twist onto both the crime factions as well as Laurent’s group. Whenever a character was backed into a corner, regardless if they were a hero or villain, Oz was always there to magic away their problem. The show arguably frames Oz as the main character in this arc, third to only Laurent and Edamame. Sadly, he goes through so little development and change that I hardly felt like I learned who he was by the time the credits rolled. He only exists to keep the story flowing and to serve as an out for any tough dilemmas.

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Speaking of our main characters, I really hope you like Laurent and Edamame, since everyone else is pretty much absent for the arc. Cynthia is gone and Abby is only briefly used at the beginning of the first three episodes. One of the strengths of the first half of Great Pretender was watching the dynamic between all four main crew members as they flew on the seat of their pants to pull off each heist. It was an ensemble piece with everyone having their time to shine regardless of whether the arc was dedicated to them or not. Wizard of Far East is no longer interested in exploring that group dynamic, relegating Abby and Cynthia to bit players after some rock-solid development earlier in the series.

On one hand, it does make a certain amount of sense when you consider Laurent’s character. His past was loosely hinted at in earlier cases but had no meaningful development. It was a dead giveaway that this arc would focus on him, and it does so quite well. We learn about how he first got into being a con-man and his encounters with his mentor/lover Dorothy. We see how Dorothy deeply influenced his outlook on life and his behavior, but more importantly, serves as a catalyst for why he wants to take down the Chinese mafia.

We’ve known for a while that Laurent isn’t someone who should be admired, but it’s at least understandable why he feels so reckless with his own life, pulling off grander and more complex crimes every other month. In terms of fleshing out Laurent, Wizard of Far East succeeds. But this isn’t an arc focusing just on Laurent.

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Edamame, our catalyst character, our audience surrogate, is also developed heavily in this arc. And the development he goes through is frankly terrible. The show turns a character that you pity and can relate to into someone who I couldn’t stand by the end of the series.

Okay, I may have been trying to dodge this topic for a while, but we need to discuss the child sex trafficking plot point. Unlike in previous arcs, where our criminals were either fixing sports competitions, selling drugs, or manipulating auctions, buying and selling third-world children is a decidedly different ballgame. The other crimes are all portrayed in cartoonish spectacles, almost like a farce, but the show takes a hard turn into seriously addressing how these criminal empires trade human lives like they were nothing.

One of the most haunting scenes from Wizard of Far East, and one of the most effective ones, is hearing one of these captured children explain that they don’t want to escape because their lives are effectively over. Where could they go? How could they survive? In their minds, they can either be sold off or they could die. It just doesn’t matter to them anymore.

I’m not against addressing serious subject matters in shows. I find that media can wonderfully tackle hard topics that people may be more averse to listening about in their everyday life. Movies like A Scanner Darkly, 12 Years A Slave, and Boys Don’t Cry all tackle difficult topics like drug addiction, slavery, and transphobia in respectful and mature ways. Wizard of Far East almost reaches that point, but the dark underbelly of child sex trafficking instead plays second fiddle to Edamame dealing with his daddy issues. I said this last time when talking about Abby’s backstory with the Iraq War, but you don’t simply take these dark and serious subject matters and make them the B-plot. It’s even worse in Wizard of Far East since it’s not even a B-plot here. It’s set dressing.

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So how is Edamame’s character development in this arc? Well… he becomes a willing participant in child sex trafficking… so there’s that. While Edamame is at first appalled by the actions of the Suzuka Organization, he eventually becomes so involved in the group that he chooses to sell these children. He makes the fully cognizant decision to head up these child auctions because he wants to be useful to the group. He’s not doing it because he has to, or doing it as a part of the heist: he’s doing it because he wants to. It’s a reprehensible character turn, there’s no other way to look at it.

One could potentially make the argument that, like the previous cases, Edamame wasn’t given the full story on what the plan was and so he made that decision after coming to a false conclusion. Let’s put aside the more annoying fact that this is a plot device that the show has used for EVERY CASE, nerfing any kind of impact it could otherwise have. I would argue that we’ve spent numerous episodes learning about Edamame, a man who is trying to get away from a life of crime, a man who hates his father for selling children behind his family’s back, a man who tried to do what’s right numerous times and attempts to rescue said kids.

To see that man willingly become complicit in the actions of the Suzuka Organization, misinformation be damned, means that this was something that he was always capable of. He could have always been a child sex trafficker, and that revelation retroactively taints my opinion of him from earlier arcs.

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Let me just take a pause for a moment to say that while I have legitimate and valid issues with the plot of the arc and its overall structure, the technical elements of the show still remain its brightest point. Locations feel bright and wonderful, giving audience members eye candy the likes of which few anime titles can produce. The smooth jazz soundtrack still remains a crowd-pleaser, and the performances by all of the actors, regardless of their character’s actions and which language you choose to listen to, are all still wonderful. Like I said at the beginning, this is still the same team from the first half so a consistent level of quality still remains.

The show even goes above and beyond at playing up the multicultural element by making a key part of the heist the use of interpreters to muddle the language barrier between the Chinese and Japanese crime syndicates. With Laurent and Edamame serving as the interpreters, the pair are able to manipulate the villains in a way that’s both smart and believable. They’re lying straight to their faces and no one can even verify what the truth is.

It’s a brilliant little moment that helps to escalate the stakes as well as remind audiences about the importance of language and communication. Granted, a bit of that impact is lost in the English dub where that language barrier is a bit muddied since the Suzuka representatives are speaking perfect English but in its native Japanese the effect, and the intent, land.

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Which brings us to the climax of the heist. Ohhhhhh… that climax.

While I won’t spoil the events of the finale itself, it’s one that borders on the absolute absurd from the other side of the fence. There are so many leaps of logic, nonsensical twists, and surprise character reveals that it becomes too much to bear. Half of the time, I was rolling my eyes at how easy it was to figure out what the end game was. The other half, my jaw was on the floor with how out-of-left-field the twists were. By the end of the episode, I was shocked, but I was also horribly confused. What just happened and how did any of that make any sense?

Previous heists all had a certain element of absurdity to them. “Los Angeles Connection” had the crew making a greedy Hollywood producer believe that candy was actually a highly addictive drug. “Singapore Sky” had Abby (remember her? I miss her…) suddenly become an air racing pilot due to the needs of the case. “Snow of London” gave us an art forger who could perfectly replicate works that can fool anyone and everyone. All of those instances, while unbelievable, work within the context of the show. They’re perfect examples of suspension of disbelief. In order for the story to work, these elements need to be in place, yet they never took me out of the situation playing in front of me.

Suspension of disbelief does not give a writer the right to throw out all logic in the name of a story. Everything that the show had established in previous arcs, hell even within Wizard of Far East itself, all gets tossed aside to create the biggest, craziest, super-duper-awesomest heist ever made! It feels childish at times and once again negatively impacts the first half of the show. The struggles that the characters went through, the victories our heroes experienced, and the crushing defeat the villains underwent, all felt moot.

That the cour spends an entire episode just trying to clean up what happened, and that the same episode pulls double duty by serving as the series finale, should be evidence that the writers were backed into a corner. To me, that just signals that your climax was so poorly telegraphed you needed an entire episode just to serve as damage control.

Netflix Jail

In case you couldn’t tell, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this final arc. Wizard of Far East is by far the worst arc of the show and gets dangerously close to damaging my high opinion of the first half (and sometimes it does so). Despite that, somehow, someway, the show still comes out somewhat okay. It’s no longer my anime of the year, far from it in fact. But like I said last time, at least Great Pretender feels fresh.

The impact of the series has, unfortunately, been negligible at best. Consider that one of the pitfalls of Netflix exclusive anime never having a chance to shine on a platform that treats the genre like an afterthought. Fans were never given the chance to gravitate to the series in the same way that weekly titles often successfully do. I’ve been seeing a lot of discussions this season on titles like Jujutsu Kaisenand Haikyuu!! solely because of their release schedules.

Each episode is given enough time for audiences to discuss what happens and get ready for the next week’s continuation. When Netflix holds hostage shows that anime fans want but can’t legally access, we say those sad titles are in Netflix jail, only to be released whenever almighty Netflix deems so. By the time they do release it, it’s too little, too late. They’re in a binging format that doesn’t work for episodic discussion or analysis.

Imagine for a moment if The Mandalorianreleased its entire season in one big drop. Would it have the same impact as it’s currently having where each episode feels like an event? It’s an overall problem with Netflix’s model and, despite how popular the anime industry is, it’s still a niche in the West. Niche titles tend to get lost and Great Pretender looks like it will be lost to the backlogs of Netflix soon. Just unceremoniously treated like every other show on the service.

For the brief ride I had with it, and despite its lackluster second half, I still had a fun time with the series. I would easily recommend it to anyone looking for a good time and for something different. It’s still worthy of discussion despite how sloppy Wizard of Far East turned out to be. I don’t see it having much-staying power now that the finale has aired and I doubt it will be relevant five or even two years from now. But for a brief time, almost a flash, you would have easily believed that Great Pretender could have pulled off the perfect heist, stealing the hearts and minds of the average Netflix user.

That may not have happened, but hey, it was worth a shot.

Previous Weebings:

Weeb Analysis July 2020: Demon Slayer
Weeb Analysis August 2020: Japan Sinks 2020
Weeb Analysis September 2020: Great Pretender
Weeb Analysis October 2020: Aragne: Sign of Vermillion
Weeb Analysis November 2020: Rent-A-Girlfriend

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.