I am certainly not a big fan of anime. Yes, I watched and loved “Avatar: The Last Airbender” but that’s not technically anime since it wasn’t made in Japan. To me, anime has only ever been the shows on Cartoon Network that I had seen as a kid like “Dragon Ball Z” and “Pokémon,” which were full of choppy, dramatic and almost laughable fight scenes. This scene from “Dragon Ball Z” is a good example: A bunch of guys with spiky hair throw each other around, crashing into buildings while shooting bright lasers at each other with metal music playing in the background.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with liking these types of shows — I just personally prefer a bit more character development in my viewing. However, after scrolling through Netflix looking for something to entertain me on a rainy day, I found a Netflix Original Anime that doesn’t focus on fight scenes and functions more as a drama/thriller. With only two seasons, I figured it wasn’t much of a commitment and that I would try it, and I’m happy that I did. With that in mind, if you’re looking to try anime but you’re a bit skeptical like I was, “Great Pretender” is an excellent place to start.
The opening shot of “Great Pretender” is of a young man named Makoto Edamura waking up and looking at an upside-down Los Angeles. The shot widens, and we notice that he is hanging by a rope tied to his foot from the “y” in the “Hollywood” sign that overlooks LA. He struggles for a bit, trying to get himself free, before yelling “Help!” This perplexing opening instantly engages the viewer. The first episode essentially documents the course of events that led to Edamura hanging from the sign. While it starts off a little slow, by the end of the first season I was thoroughly engaged and eager to start Season 2.
Protagonist Edamura is a scam artist in Japan. He tries to fool a foreign man named Laurent Thierry, but Thierry turns out to also be a con man and winds up stealing money from Edamura. In the midst of running from the cops, Edamura stumbles into a taxicab with Thierry, where Thierry coerces him into going to Los Angeles to assist with swindling a rich, mafia drug lord.
At the insistence of Thierry, Edamura pretends to be a chemist who can make fake drugs that the group will sell to the drug lord. From there, we meet more and more characters who are a part of Thierry’s network of scammers known as the “Confidence Team.” Over the course of the first season, the Confidence Team pulls off scams in Los Angeles, Singapore and London. Think of it like a heist show, except the heist is done more through talking and social tricks rather than by running and showcasing fight sequences. Each location has its own conflict and story that adds to the overall development of each character.
While the plot is interesting and intense, this is definitely a slow-burn, character-driven show. Each scam delves deeper into the backstory of each character, which helps to flesh them out. Edamura’s backstory is also gradually revealed and we learn that he turned to scamming when his mother got sick and needed money to pay her medical bills. He starts out as a reckless con man who sees no wrong in taking advantage of the naive. However, he begins to see the collateral harm in fooling people and starts to envy a life of honest work.
On top of that, another great character is Thierry’s assistant, Abigail Jones, who flips off everyone she sees and initially comes across as a sociopath who wants nothing to do with other people. But throughout the Singapore arc, the shades of her backstory start to roll back, and we learn more about her traumatic past. These traumas come back to haunt her in Singapore, and she needs to cope with them while simultaneously performing the con. These types of transformations definitely take a few episodes to become noticeable, which makes the first couple of episodes feel a bit hollow. This type of character development definitely results in more of a slow-burn style of show, but the payoff is great.
Some of the show’s bells and whistles include its beautiful animation and humorous dialogue. The character sketches are nothing too special, but the scenery and landscapes are exquisite. Both the city skylines and natural landscapes are warm and beautiful. There’s a scene in one of the first few episodes where the group is eating dinner at a coastal restaurant in LA. The animation is on point with stunning imagery like rich sauce on a shiny, red lobster and an evening sunset glimmering over the ocean as it descends into the water.
Humor, too, is basically a necessity with character-driven shows, and “Great Pretender” has no shortage of it. Laurent Thierry is full of witty one-liners, and Abigail Jones’ introverted, “I-hate-people” personality will draw many laughs.
“Great Pretender” also forgoes the annoying tropes that I had previously associated with anime. Edamura is a very human and relatable protagonist, which is a great juxtaposition from the all-powerful leads often found in fantasy anime. He’s never the mastermind behind any of the group’s plans but is still competent enough to be interesting and moral enough to be likable.
Additionally, like most past television programming, anime has also been historically guilty of including weak female characters who serve as romantic interests and/or damsels in distress for male characters to save. However, the female characters in “Great Pretender” are extraordinarily well-developed, competent and independent. Just look at Abigail: She’s fleshed out, takes a no-nonsense approach to life and doesn’t care a bit about what people think of her.
The character-based stories help “Great Pretender” avoid the ridiculous, fight-centric plot trap that most animes fall into. If you’re having a tough time getting into anime, try “Great Pretender.” It demonstrates that there is more to the genre than just spiky hair, action sequences and metal music.