Great Pretender

4 out of 5

Directed by: Hiro Kaburagi

covers season 1

I question if it’s truly possible to dislike Great Pretender. I can sift through some movies / shows to which it’s immediately similar – Durarara!!‘s large, intersecting cast of characters; Ocean’s 11‘s giddy focus on con people and elaborate heists – and come up with some understandable reasons why one might not enjoy them, but Great Pretender’s exact intersection of elements of those influences, plus its own delightful design and animation from Wit Studio, its engaging voice cast, and its continually delightful and rewarding script make it really tough to sell me on someone not, at least, being pleasantly distracted by it.

And then once distracted, how can you not become invested? How can you not get wrapped up in Makoto’s introduction into high stakes cons, which have him traveling the world with a crew led by Frenchman Laurent, often cast as some kind of specialist who gets close to the mark… only to have his morals butt in and seemingly screw up the scheme? This is the key element which is Great Pretender’s special sauce: instead of directly playing the Robin Hood card, in which our gentlemen and / or lady thieves are doing something for the greater good (which is the cheat most similarly-themed books / shows / movies take so that we can have our happy-ending cake and eat it with money-stealing, bad-guy-foiling deviousness), Great Pretender happily wallows in the moralistic greys, pulled back into respectability by Makoto’s bumbling, which isn’t bumbling at all, as the kid is quick on the uptake and a conner in his own right, he’s just impulsively led by a desire to err on the side of good…

Our first swindling “case” revels in twisty back and forths and hilarious reveals, staffing Laurent’s crew with excellent, memorable characters. From thereon out, the cases start to show more foresight in terms of why they’re being chosen, and how things might relate back to our characters – to their reasons for being con artists; and what brought them together. Without, again, falling on usual structural tropes, we shift between present and past and learn more and more, all while the con in the foreground still kicks along excitingly, never lacking in those ever-escalating twists.

…Perhaps to a fault. The last case takes interconnectedness and coincidences several steps too far, and bloats to a 9-episode arc as a result (other arcs are four or five episodes), with some of the runarounds required to make all the Whys clear a little clunky. However, this is strategically saved for last, such that all of the character work done up to that point earns Pretender the credit needed to see us through: it might be a little forced and overwrought, but it’s also god damned satisfying when it lands it home, and proves to have been drawing strong thematic links and emotional links throughout the whole series.

Wit Studios is a proven quantity in animation by this point, but all stops are removed on this show – it is utterly gorgeous. Character silhouettes are instantly memorable, and the balance between more elastic animations and realistic ones are perfection; action and comedy and drama all hit with the same impact. The choice of flat color pastels for backgrounds is also a smart stylistic touch, highlighting the elevated nature of the series without coming across as distracting or too cutesy. All the good writing and fun plotting aside, the show is just pleasant to watch.

So this becomes the new anime to foist on your non-anime friends. Forget trying to explain Titans to them, or easing them in to isekai, or justifying fanservice: Great Pretender should be enjoyed by all. The only problem is: it’s going to be hard to beat.