Studio: Wit Studio
Director: Hiro Kaburagi
Streaming on: Netflix
I have a weakness for heist movies. There is something about these slick films populated by con men recruiting a team for ‘one last job’ that pokes at the happy center of my brain. At a young age I discovered this passion through Ocean’s 11, leading to research in the classics like The Italian Job (the 1969 version, although I have a soft spot for the 2003 remake), and I especially love the over the top action of Baby Driver, National Treasure, and even the Fast and Furious movies.
Needless to say, I took to the Great Pretender immediately. Coming from the same studio as Attack on Titan and Vinland Saga, the artistic direction of this show is on another level. Its characters are quick and fluid, its color palette is as wild as Jojo, and the soundtrack is another level. Watching the first case, The Great Pretender is a fireworks show, dazzling with the color and spectacle, as its characters quip and bounce off one another as only charismatic and frenetic rogue types can do. However, that’s all I thought there was to the show, fireworks. Pretty in the moment, and quickly fizzling out.
Throughout the first two cases, I came to the conclusion that the series was, as a whole, shallow. These people were fun, the writing was clever and snappy, but it felt more as though they were a vehicle for plot twists and daring moments of genius. Generally, that’s all you need to make a great heist story, so I was not dissatisfied. Quite the contrary, I was still willing to hold it up as a contender for anime of the year, if only it didn’t have the misfortune of coming out in the same year as Re:Zero season 2, Attack on Titan season 4, and Jujutsu Kaisen.
And then, I watched Case 3, Snow of London. At of writing this, that is the latest arc released in my side of the world, and it will be the only part that I leave any spoilers to. If that’s a problem, it’s a quick 14 episodes and considering the accessibility of Netflix, all you need to know is that it is a must watch. Seasonal anime come and go, but this one will blow you away, if you have the same weakness for debonair gentlemen thieves as I do.
Now, the Great Pretender is an original anime populated by the Confidence Men and Women, an elite group of thieves and crooks who steal from the corrupt and wealthy. They’re no Robin Hood types, more often using their ill-gotten funds on their own lavish tastes, but building up each arc’s villain as someone who deserves to be stolen from prevents the series from putting a bad taste in your mouth. We begin with Makoto Edamura, a small-time schemer in Japan who is recruited by suave French Confidence Man Laurent to snag a fortune from a mobster masquerading as a pulp filmmaker.
The series quickly expands in scope with every arc, opening up to new parts of the world and a wide array of characters. Of course there are twists and turns along the way, but no heist story is complete without the last act heel turn where the peak of the plan is revealed to the audience, contextualizing the results. As far as tropes go, it is satisfying and makes the formula feel as though it could go anywhere. And with Case 3, it does.
Case 3 is a masterpiece. In previous arcs, I considered the thoughtful moments and flashbacks to the backgrounds of Edamura and Abby to be the series’ substance. It fleshed out the primary cast well enough that I never considered if they were holding anything back. However, after the series goes in depth on the background of one of its more forgettable characters, it changed my opinion of The Great Pretender entirely for the better. It is not just one of the best of the season, although Netflix’s release schedule makes it difficult to categorize, but a rising star you best be paying attention to.
Before I can address the story, it’s best I turn to the characters. Edamura rides the line between being the everyman protagonist who needs things explained to him, while often having moments of improvisational brilliance. This keeps him from having to rely too heavily on his partners, and the depth of his character is allowed to shine. He’s most often the conscience of the group, though that rarely keeps them out of trouble and more often gets them into it. His quirk of collecting capsule toys is often more than a simple childish habit, but a rather clever way of tying into the themes of each arc.
Now, Makoto’s closest partner is Laurent, who is just the worst. And the best. The prototypical dashing rogue, he’s usually not fully utilized in every scene because he would steal them all if he were. While I think the voice work in the sub is unusually immersive for an anime, I think the dub in particular does him justice. Just enough of that charm glazed over a thick layer of smarmy. I’m told that the as yet unreleased in North America Case 4 goes into greater detail on his background and character, and I am looking forward to it.
Abby, meanwhile, is a character whose backstory generally did not help her. Her best qualities is that she is all too willing to go in on a bit, whether for a job or her own entertainment, and that her sharp tongue keeps the more lackadaisical Confidence Men in line. It’s her self-serious and easily irritated attitude that helps ground the series, as her partners all generally fall into the fast-talking crook type. Abby excels as a mood killer, though her abilities as a natural born actress allows for some of the series’ more ludicrous moments.
And Cynthia is another story entirely. Seriously, I’d have watched an entire show about her background that we see in Case 3, and I praise the creative team’s restraint in her utilization until the third arc. She honestly does not get enough time to shine in the first two cases, and then The Great Pretender reels back for an emotional sucker punch with Cynthia’s youth, following her doomed relationship with a penniless French artist. The emotional weight of this story is enough to carry its own season, as I said, but the way that writer Ryōta Kosawa is able to efficiently weave it into the current story is nothing short of masterful.
To address the story itself, Case 3 takes a step back and drops scenes of the past, where Cynthia meets and falls in love with Thomas, a painter whose original works bring him no success, yet can replicate other masterpieces with ease. An expert thief and art forger would make for an excellent pairing, but it as Thomas becomes successful counterfeiting lost paintings, it is what drives them apart.
While the previous arcs had emotional hooks laid down, like Abbey’s troubled past and Salazar’s attempts to provide for his son, none hit home quite like Snow of London. It is the resolution of a character arc that was never apparent until now, and the phenomenal music and voice acting only serves to heighten the grip that The Great Pretender has on your heart. This is a worthy watch just for the catharsis of Case 3 alone, but it still holds much more inside.
Despite the charisma of its characters and the depth of its story, you can almost tell that The Great Pretender was created for its visuals. It has such a powerful artistic vision, using wild and unnaturally colorful scenery just to make a dialogue scene pop, and it uses simple line art to allow its cast to bounce into action elegantly. The facial expressions often reach Konosuba levels of off-model that amplify the series’ funniest moments. They will hide CGI used for cars or planes with this filter that blends into the background perfectly.
And the music. I am rarely such a sucker for music, but The Great Pretender’s sense of style is so keen that it could not help but extend to the soundtrack. The opening is an homage to classic heist movies with a Bond-esque silhouette globetrotting theme, and the original soundtrack is full to bursting with upbeat and jazzy tunes, producing an air of nostalgia for Cowboy Bebop. And then, the ED. I know I’ve already referenced Jujutsu Kaisen, and praised it’s ending lavishly, but how was I supposed to know they would go ahead and do this?
It is one thing to name your anime after a song from Freddie Mercury, but then you had to go ahead and license the actual song for your ED? I’m dead, someone please bury me. Licensing classic musicians is no stranger to anime, what with Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure being as big as it is, but this is such a thematically fitting song, set to a vignette that reflects the story while utilizing cats, of which Freddie Mercury loved and had many. It’s too good, I can’t handle it.
The Great Pretender is of course, worth your time. It checks off boxes for sound, visuals, and aesthetics, while proving its writing chops are far greater than the sum of its snappy lines and plot contrivances. There is always this air of uncertainty with original series, whether it’s going to be a Code Geass or a Darling in the Franxx, but The Great Pretender has cast aside those doubts and made me wonder why I ever held them.
The Great Pretender is a pretender in name only, offering up more substance in its style than many series manage in their entire runtime. I am counting down the days until Case 4 releases, and hoping they never change that ED.