Great Pretender – International high-flying capers that fall a little flat

Beautiful scenery and a stunning cell-shaded art style a la A Scanner Darkly makes this heist anime feel truly international.

Synopsis: Makoto “Edamame” Edamura, Japanese conman and pickpocket, has a chance encounter with Laurent Thierry, international swindler. Entangled in his antics and his wily charm, Makoto finds himself jet-setting across the globe in the company of Abigail Jones and Cynthia Moore, with the goal of robbing the rich and evil.

I feel like I hold quite the unpopular opinion when it comes to Great Pretender, given the number of people I’ve spoken to who include it in their list of best anime of 2020. It’s not a bad show. In fact, I’d say it’s a step in a good direction, with its international setting and broad appeal making the show accessible to those who aren’t so keen on anime.

But it was just kind of… unmemorable. 

Great Pretender boasts a bright and varied cast but failed to dive deep enough into its own characters for me to fall in love with them.

Now, this show looks great. The art direction is fantastic, each frame a bright, cell-shaded explosion of color reminiscent of the kind of animation style touted by Studio Trigger, whose work I love. The music pops. The character design stands out without ever being too outlandish, making it that more palatable for those who are new to anime. 

It’s a terribly fun show, too. Well and truly a heist series, Great Pretender boasts action-packed set pieces and wild capers that come together like puzzle pieces, assembled bit by bit as bullets fly and money changes hands. One story arc in particular, set in sweaty, sleazy Los Angeles, felt like watching one of the older Oceans movies, culminating in a reveal that left me slack-jawed and laughing in disbelief. No way, I remember thinking to myself as that arc came to a close.

And yet I still don’t remember much of Great Pretender.

We’re asked to believe that Abby underwent some kind of growth throughout the Singapore arc, but by the end of it I wasn’t convinced she had. Great choreography and art direction all throughout – but not enough detail given to the growth of these colorful characters.

Here’s an example. There’s this arc in Great Pretender where Makoto and the gang set out to trick the Ibrahim brothers at their own rigged aerial race. Their whole scheme is exhilarating – Thierry and Cynthia’s antics were a blast as always, and Makoto and Abigail found themselves in some truly precarious situations, maneuvering away a hairs’ breadth from losing their lives. We’re even treated to a little bit of Abby’s back story – but it isn’t enough. The high-flying stunts above the skyscrapers of Singapore were an experience, sure, but I just wasn’t that invested. Why? Because up until then, the show hadn’t given us a reason to care about Abby. Sure, the Singapore arc gave us snippets into her war-shocked military background – but the buildup to that moment, the emotional highs where other anime soars and where other directors really bust out their big storytelling guns, was all rather lacking. No clenched fists or single tears, no careful backstory to make me fall in love with Abby. Just visuals – beautiful visuals, yes, but lacking heart.

I talked with a friend, once, about what it is we thought anime really excels in. Anime, we decided, is really good at bringing emotions to life. It’s clear in the little character moments between plot points, the clenched-fist, single-tear, eyes-to-the-sky shounen shots or the subtle scenes of characters sat by themselves, the shot lingering a little longer as we dive deep into their inner feelings. In reeling us deep into its characters, their plights and inner thoughts, anime excels, and while those character moments are present in The Great Pretender, it never felt like it was truly bringing me in.

I like Makoto. I really do, and I wish the show had explored him and his growth as a character a little more.

Perhaps it’s my own cynical opinion of platforms like Netflix in general, and the treatment they give the shows they produce. Shows like BNA, for example, or the live-action work Netflix produces, feels as if they were written by a giant committee. The finished products play out as if they were whipped to market perfection, ticking off the boxes that ought to make them a smash hit. Many are smash hits, but in polishing their shows its as if they’ve sanded off the edges, the little nicks and grooves of personality and emotion that, for me, really makes an anime stand out. 

The opening to Great Pretender encompasses, in a way, what I think of the show. It’s pretty and flashy and poppy and fun, a good ride from start to finish – but flat, ultimately flat, and, sadly, kind of forgettable for it.

In Summary

(+) An anime that felt truly international, a step in the right direction toward reaching wider audiences

(+) Beautiful animation gives life to convoluted capers that are a real joy to watch

(-) A lack of signature anime clench-fist single-tear emotion kept the show from being truly memorable

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