In 1987, legendary Queen’s frontman Freddie Mercury released his cover of “The Great Pretender,” a 1955 song performed by The Platters about pretending to be perfectly fine and happy after experiencing a heartbreak that leaves you sad and alone. But as Freddie described in one of his last interviews, the song had additional meaning, mirroring his own feelings about his stage persona and career. In life, the musician said, he pretended to be various characters, all while hiding who he really was and how he was really feeling.
The first season of Wit Studio’s (Attack on Titan, Vinland Saga) newest series Great Pretender, which is now on Netflix, not only takes its name from the Freddie Mercury song (used as the show’s ending theme), but seems to find character inspiration from Freddie’s interpretation of the lyrics. While fundamentally it’s a show about a group of thieves pulling off big heists against bad people, the real focus is in looking behind the con-artist facades of a cast of professional pretenders.
The series follows Makoto Edamura, a modern-day, small-time con man in Japan, who gets swindled by French gentleman thief Laurent Thierry into following him from Tokyo to Los Angeles. There, Laurent entangles Edamura in his plot to swindle a powerful film producer/mafia don out of millions in a fake drug deal.
Of the season’s three heists, the L.A. heist is the most like a classic heist movie, constructed like an Ocean’s Eleven-style magic trick. The story brings viewers into the deception, walking them through all the pieces, mechanics, and characters so that they feel like they know exactly what is about to happen. Then, using that perceived knowledge and sense of complacency to distract them, the show lands its sudden twists.
Edamura is the audience surrogate in Great Pretender, discovering the bigger world of con artistry without knowing every piece of the puzzle during any given plot. That makes the heist’s twists a surprise for both the audience and Edamura, ensuring that all the surprises are also character-motivated. The show’s real trick is to have viewers care more about Edamura than the heist itself.
Over the L.A. job’s five episodes, we get glimpses of the actual person behind the con artist Edamura is pretending to be. Mainly, he’s an endearing goofball who is over his head, but somehow trying to still make it work, and learning how he came to be this way helps to make him both someone to sympathize with and root for. The season’s other two heists, in Singapore and London, use criminal action to push this character exploration aspect to the forefront as they delve into other members of Laurent’s gang.
This wouldn’t work if the show’s cast weren’t as endearing and interesting as they are. Edamura is a scrappy fish out of water trying to act like he’s amphibious. Then there’s Abby, the gang’s abrasive and fearless jack of all trades muscle, Cynthia, the charismatic big sister charmer, and Laurent, who just oozes untrustworthy slimey gentleman thief,and relishes it. Watching how each gang member plays off the others is a joy to behold, especially as it becomes apparent that they actually like and trust one another (despite how they might act).
The series’ action scenes are a showcase of Wit Studio’s unique animation talent. Set pieces range from characters fleeing quickly through small, labyrinthine alleyways to planes zipping under bridges and between buildings over Singapore. The studio has mastered animating incredibly complex and dynamic action through 3D environments that look good, give the sense that they are actually in a real place, and are easy for the viewer to follow and understand what’s going on. It’s often accomplished using movements or camera placements that would either be impossible or completely impractical to pull off in live-action filmmaking.
Great Pretender manages to find a good balance between the drama and humor, where serious or concerning things can happen without souring what makes the show fun to watch. It’s an aspect of the show reinforced through the show’s art direction, exemplified in the beautifully bright and colorful posterized backgrounds that establish a lighthearted tone.
The design choice is diametrically opposed to the drearier color palettes of dramatic and prestige television shows, like Wit Studio’s own Attack on Titan. No longer involved in the hit series, it seems the studio found the opportunity to be a bit more ambitious and creative with their projects, and demonstrate what they are capable of. First with 2019’s adaptation of Vinland Saga, a series I’ve described as a sort of capstone work of the decade for them, built on everything they’d learned from their work in the 2010s and realizing a manga that seemed nearly impossible to adapt. If Vinland Saga was the studio looking back, Great Pretender feels like a signal of where the studio wants to go from now on away from the drabe and drearier.
When it comes to recommending an anime series to someone, especially for someone unfamiliar with it, I find it easiest to tailor a suggestion based on what shows or movies a person already likes. However there are few shows that, regardless of a person’s predilections, I would suggest without a second thought. Great Pretender is now on that list.