[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.]
Quick question; when you think of anime, which country comes to mind? It’s not a complicated question, as anime has originated and has been, and always will be, associated with one country, and that is Japan. Anime is an inherently Japanese creation and while we mostly take that fact as a given today, I don’t think people realize just how much anime is entrenched in Japanese culture. Anime is usually set in Japan, centers on Japanese customs and traditions, and focuses on situations that would seem outlandish or out of place in any country outside of Japan. It’s because of that that anime like Great Pretender feel like outliers in the general output of content coming from Japan because of how un-Japanese they are.
So much about anime is inherently about Japan as a culture, whether it’s Naruto’s focus on ninjutsu, Japan Sinks 2020 examination of a potential Japanese natural disaster, or something as mundane as Fruits Basket being steeped in Japanese mysticism. Even shows that have more fantastical settings like space or *insert bland Isekai setting here* are still entrenched in Japanese norms, folkways, and mores. They might not be set in Japan, but for all intents and purposes, they’re still acting like they are in Japan.
Shows that bridge the divide between Japanese culture and Western/global culture are few and far between. Cowboy Bebop is probably the best example of this: the show features a multicultural and distinct cast that includes not only Asian men, but African-American, Islamic, Hispanic, Caucasian, and Native-American characters. They’re all wrapped in a soundtrack that uses a broad range of styles and themes that span across the globe. You could also cite shows like Michiko and Hatchin and its portrayal of South American culture (and, to a lesser extent, Blood Blockade Battlefront for its take on New York City) as shows that have a more multicultural approach to storytelling. But, that list is paltry at best. More often than not, if a show attempts to be multicultural, it’s in broad stereotypes like G Gundam and its infamous Tequila Gundam.
That’s not to say a lack of multiculturalism is a bad thing in anime, but representation and setting do matter. You can only watch so many romances set in a Japanese high school before you start begging for something different. This is why shows like Great Pretender feel like such a breath of fresh air for its global setting and the high octane thrills those settings provide. It also just so happens to be my top contender for anime of the year as of this writing. So it has that going for it too.
Great Pretender is a rarity in the anime industry as it’s an anime centered on a group of con-artists trying to scam incredibly wealthy and terrible people. The group, led by the indomitably confident Laurent (Junichi Suwabe/Aaron Phillips), recruits Makoto “Edamame” Edamura (Chiaki Kobayashi/Alan Lee), the self-professed “greatest swindler in Japan” into their group to help steal from the evil rich and keep all the money for themselves. While they’re not opposed to helping the poor people whose lives were ruined by these rich bastards, they’re more likely to just hoard the money for themselves and call it a day.
There’s a lot to unpack with Great Pretender and how it expertly crafts numerous heists that keep audiences on the edge of their seats for 14 episodes, but I wanted to start by just talking about the first 10 minutes of the first episode. Without even trying, it made a clear impact and did something I rarely see in anime.
Regardless of whether you’re watching the dub or the sub, the opening is written for multiple languages. Edamame speaks in Japanese, as you would expect, but then when he’s talking to a foreigner like Laurent, the same Japanese voice actor speaks in English, accent and all, because he believes Laurent speaks English and not Japanese. The characters frequently swap languages to obfuscate who hears what, with Laurent pulling that same trick by occasionally speaking in French. Eventually, the show stops and says that they’re just going to have everyone speak English or Japanese for the sake of simplicity, but that opening solidifies the broad scope and scale that Great Pretender aims for.
The first cour is divided into three distinct cases: “Los Angeles Connection,” “Singapore Sky,” and “Snow of London.” Each case takes place in their respective city and features numerous landmarks and situations inherent to those locations to make them feel like those respective cities. Los Angeles shows an In N’ Out Burger, glamorous movie theaters, and shady docks fitting a drug cartel. Singapore has air races centered on the Marina Bay Sands and the Supertree Grove. London features Big Ben, art galleries, and so many tea houses that I pined for visiting the UK again. This adds some much-needed variety to the visuals as our group of scoundrels plans capers against their marks.
Thanks to the structure of the show, it feels less like watching a long series with constant development and plot twists, but rather three excellent films that never overstay their welcome. They all feel self-contained. It’s perfect for binging, which is probably why Netflix picked up the series as soon as they possibly could. There is a continuity between each of the cases, usually tying one person in the main group’s problems either directly or indirectly to the primary villain of the case.
This is probably best exemplified in “Snow of London,” where the group’s seductress Cynthia (Mie Sonozaki/Laura Post) arranges to take down an art appraiser that ruined the career of her former lover, a man who manipulates women to buying pieces at exorbitant prices, all the while claiming he’s a gentleman and quite effortlessly showing how much of an elitist bigot he is. The format works, allowing one character to take center stage while the rest act in a supporting role instead of it being just Edamame’s story as he’s still framed as the main character. The clashing of different personalities also helps distinguish each case, as Edamame’s earnest and well-intentioned demeanor would handle the situation differently than Cynthia’s logical and cutthroat style.
It’s more effective in some cases than others, most notably in “Singapore Sky.” The development is set on Abby (Natsumi Fujiwara/Kausar Mohammed), but it has very little, if anything, to do with the mark. It’s not exactly handled elegantly and her character’s resolution feels rushed at best, which is probably the only time I would say the show mishandled its execution. It’s like you had two separate plots vying against each other but never crossing over. That would normally be okay, but when the A-plot is scamming the head of an air race competition who rigs his races, the B-plot shouldn’t really be dealing with the social and emotional fallout of the Iraq War. “Singapore Sky” is still a hell of a lot of fun and even when there are mistakes in the plot, nearly everything else picks up the slack.
Wit Studio has been churning out hits ever since they formed in the early 2010s, delivering such titles as Attack on Titan, The Ancient Magus’ Bride, and last year’s sensational Vinland Saga, yet Great Pretender may just be the best show they’ve produced. The artistic style on display is gorgeous, featuring more angular character models and an aesthetic that is simply to die for. No joke, my laptop wallpaper is now one of the establishing shots from “Singapore Sky.” All of the colors pop and give off the sense that this is a vivid fever dream, not quite grounded in reality. It’s almost fitting for a show where the stakes are raised continuously until reaching a bombastic climax in each heist. Just when you think the show can’t get any more insane, it finds a way to up the ante.
Another aspect of Great Pretender that sets it apart from any other anime I’ve seen this year is its choice of genre. Great Pretender is a heist thriller. In the several decades since the anime industry exploded in popularity, there are really only two other shows that I can think of that center on or around heists and the people that initiate them. You have Lupin III, which is somehow not as popular as it should be, and Baccano!, a criminally underrated anime from the mid-2000s. Heist thrillers just simply aren’t a genre that sells in Japan, with more traditional Shonen, Shoujo, and Isekai series taking the majority of the spotlight nowadays.
It’s not a surprise though, given how heists and crime dramas feel more like a Western subgenre. Cinema as we know it has been founded by heist films, dating as far back as The Great Train Robbery (1963) and beyond. Since then, Americans have had an obsession with crime and the criminals who pull them off, whether they’re gangsters like in Scarface, The Godfather, or Goodfellas, to more unconventional criminals that star in movies like Logan Lucky, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Big Short. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Great Pretender emulates these movies more than their Japanese counterparts, giving off an Ocean’s/Catch Me If You Can vibe to the proceedings.
It makes sense then that the director of the anime, Hiro Kaburagi, admits to being inspired by more Western products than Japanese ones. At least, accordingly to his credits as a director. His previous credits include 2016’s 91 Days, a crime drama set during America’s Prohibition era, that is steeped in mafia lore and imagery. While that show can be depressing and a much more dour experience, Great Pretender is notably more energetic, farcical, and funnier than 91 Days ever was. The tone fits here. You can really only go about such an over-the-top premise as an over-the-top comedy. I mean, how else are characters going to convince a drug kingpin that some candy they’re peddling is actually a highly effective drug without making someone have an orgasmic rush of energy, running and screaming like a madman? There’s just no other way.
As much as I want to continue expounding the praises of Great Pretender, there are unfortunately two problems I ran into while writing this feature. The first problem is an easy one; I don’t want to spoil anything. While this isn’t the kind of show that you should go into completely blind to get the most enjoyment out of it, it is a show that you should go ahead and watch, even if you’re only slightly interested in seeing it. I can list countless reasons why the show is great, but at a certain point watching it will probably be more effective than another thousand words ever will be. Plus if me calling it my anime of the year so far isn’t praise enough, I don’t know what will be.
But the second caveat that I have with Great Pretender is that the show is currently unfinished. While the first three cases were released in late August here in the West, the fourth (and hopefully not final) case, “Wizard of Far East”, has yet to premiere. It’s set for a Japanese release in late September and will encompass nine episodes, making it the longest case by a mile. I’m almost certain that the series won’t drop the ball in the second half, but due to the extended length of the case, I can’t say I’m not worried about Wit Studio padding out what could have been a five-episode story into nine. Even if the story does falter, it’s almost guaranteed that the visuals will still stay up to snuff and we can see more of this legendary OP and ED duo. I’ve always put the OP to each of the anime I cover here on Weeb Analysis at the top of each post, but I can’t not share the absolutely masterful ED here as well, which floored me every time I heard it. Then again, anything Freddy Mercury will floor me.
As far as overall packages go, the jury’s still out on whether Great Pretender can end on a satisfying note. For what it’s worth though, these first 14 episodes have done what few anime series could ever do. This feels new. We like to scoff the originality is dead, especially as movie studios mine genres until they’re dead, but that is especially true in the anime industry which has gone all-in on sequels, crossovers, reboots, and regurgitating concepts to no end. If you’re tired of genre fatigue in the film industry, it’s far, FAR worse in the world of anime.
But Great Pretender feels like everything the current anime industry isn’t. It has a striking color palette, an international stage, a structure that’s perfect for pick-up-and-go viewing, all set in a genre that rarely is utilized in the industry. Make no mistake, whenever the second cour debuts in the West, I will do a Weeb Analysis on it since I just need to extoll the virtues of the show one more time (hopefully) and see just what kind of an impact it will have, if any, on the anime community. Here’s hoping we have another classic in the making.