Great Pretender

Great Pretender is a crime-caper series, not unlike Lupin III, but less cartoon-zany. This is a hardboiled show, with sex, drugs and real-world grit; it has bold, unreal colours without feeling lurid; and its character designs are by Evangelion legend Yoshiyuki Sadamoto.

Right from the off, Great Pretender surrounds us with hustles and counter-hustles. Our viewpoint is Edamura, a Japanese man who considers himself the world’s greatest con artist, and who’s therefore outraged when he finds himself conned by a foreigner, a Frenchman called Laurent Thierry. In the first episodes, Edamura finds himself roped into a con that Laurent is pulling in Los Angeles. It involves various complications, including drugs and a monstrous Hollywood producer. Made in 2020, Great Pretender ended up being a post-Weinstein anime, perhaps by luck – the writer Ryota Kosawa started work on Pretender in 2014 before the Weinstein scandal broke.

Great Pretender

It’s in L.A. that Edamura meets the third member of the show’s impromptu “team,” Abigail, a ball-busting Iraqi woman. The Californian setting lasts for the first story arc, but later episodes make the series truly international, flying to Singapore, the UAE, France and even far-flung London. It’s soon clear this isn’t just a caper show, with each of the main characters having backstory baggage that a series like Lupin wouldn’t often bother with. For example, Abigail’s Iraqi nationality is most definitely relevant to the story. The series is grown-up stuff, and, interestingly, its writer is something of an outsider to anime.

Ryota Kosawa has very few other anime credits. He’s better known for his collaborations with Takashi Yamazaki, who directed last winter’s monster hit Godzilla Minus One. That one wasn’t by Kosawa, but he co-scripted Yamazaki’s two live-action Parasyte films, based on the horror manga by Hiroshi Iwasaki. Kosawa had previously co-scripted Yamazaki’s nostalgic film trilogy Always: Sunset on Third Street set in 1960s Tokyo.

Great Pretender

The fact that Great Pretender’s writer is from “outside” anime suggests that the Wit studio, which made the series, was aiming for something different from the anime norm. That’s also suggested by comments by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, though his very presence as a character designer will draw in anime fans. Interviewed by MyAnimeList and Anime Trending, Sadamoto remembered his school days watching anime such as Lupin. “(Great Pretender) is more on the realistic side,” he said, “and people who enjoy these types of more realistic anime are sort of our target.

When I was little, there was no word “otaku” or word for anime lovers like that… I wouldn’t say (Great Pretender) is just for anime fans but for a wide audience.”

That sounds like Shinichiro Watanabe’s comments on creating Cowboy Bebop, a previous caper anime that broke the mould. That Cowboy Bebop link is obvious from Pretender’s opening credits sequence. It’s another jazzy title theme (by composer Yutaka Yamada), and another delightful play with graphic shapes in the tradition of the legendary American titles designer Saul Bass. More specifically, Great Pretender’s title sequence is references a tribute to Bass – the opening to Steven Spielberg’s 2002 caper film Catch Me If You Can, whose titles were created by Florence Deygas and Oliver Kuntzel.

Great Pretender

The in-series art style, meanwhile, comes from someone else again, a British artist called Brian Cook. “During the preparation stage for Great Pretender,” Sadamoto explained to Anime News Network, “I went to an Aoyama Book Centre in Roppongi, and in the Western literature corner I saw a Brian Cook artbook.

I bought a number of his Vintage Britain books… When creating the image boards and backgrounds, I took the shape and the atmosphere of the colours and so forth from the artbook… When it was combined with the quirks of the individual background artists, it was interesting how the background art style developed.”

Everything about Great Pretender seems meant to go beyond anime as it’s usually conceived, even as it draws on deep (and sometimes forgotten) traditions in the medium. Edamura, for example, gives us the viewpoint of a Japanese man, but he’s surrounded by characters from multiple countries. The series’ director Hiro Kaburagi had previously made the 2016 anime thriller 91 Days, about an Italian hero taking on the Mafia in Prohibition America.

Kubaragi told Anime News Network that when he made Great Pretender, “I was conscious about giving balanced roles to both the male and female characters, as well as giving diverse roles to characters across different races. I took care to ensure that even the villains aren’t defined by their nationality or race, and I tried as much as possible to make the characters hard to hate.”

Sadamoto made similar comments to Anime Trending. “This is a story about con men, essentially about bad guys, but they aren’t like dark heroes or anything. They’re very human and have a human side, so I think they’re very lovable characters. I think we did a good job of portraying that, so I hope that people will like the characters.”

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Great Pretender is available in the UK from Anime Limited.

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