Great Pretender

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

In 1987, the legendary Freddie Mercury released a cover version of “The Great Pretender,” a 1955 song by The Platters about how we lie to ourselves and the world and pretend to be happy right after a devastating breakup. Mercury’s version is as glamorous as you’d expect from the Queen frontman, who performs with his signature swagger.

But the song has another meaning, which is brought to light the moment Mercury starts revisiting and parodying some of his best known moments with Queen, like the music videos for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “I Want to Break Free” and “Radio Ga Ga,” and the irony of the lyrics starts to reveal immense vulnerability and a poignant understanding of the singer’s life as a stage performer and the many acts he had to put on over the years while hiding his real self and his real feelings. That the song was released mere months before the singer was diagnosed with AIDS just adds to its depth and meaning.

Why have I spent so many words on Freddie Mercury in an article about an anime show? Because Netflix and Studio Wit’s latest show, Great Pretender, shares more than just a title with Mercury’s cover, which plays at the end of every episode with a recreation of the song’s music video (starring animated versions of Mercury’s actual cats). The Netflix show also shares the song’s knack for spectacle and showmanship, and more importantly, the meaning Freddie put into the lyrics — that essentially we are all con-artists, putting up a facade for the world while hiding our true selves.

Great Pretender follows Makoto Edamura, a small-time con man in Japan who gets swindled by a world-class confidence man named Laurent Thierry into working for him, pulling heists all over the globe with a crew of messed up yet skilled swindlers.

What Makes It Great

Studio Wit made its name with fantastic, gritty, and very brutal adaptations of Attack on Titan and Vinland Saga, which mostly take visual cues from medieval times and deal with grounded, largely natural hues. But with Great Pretender, they pull off a con on the audience and discard everything we associate with the studio, instead giving us a hyper-saturated watercolor aesthetic full of bright colors which contrasts with the characters’ dark and miserable lives. Just like with their previous shows, the studio manages to make the perfect case for the advantages of animation, using complicated camera movements that simply aren’t possible to achieve in live-action to bring the heists to life. Likewise, Neon Genesis Evangelion character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto does perhaps his best work yet, making each character in Great Pretender look completely unique and full of life.

The actual heists are full of twists and surprises. The season is divided into three different “Cases,” with the first one feeling like the anime version of Ocean’s Eleven you didn’t know you needed. And like the best heist movies, it brings you into the plan just enough so you get an idea of what is about to happen, before pulling the rug from under you at the last minute and revealing the real plan.

In some ways, Great Pretender feels like the lovechild between Cowboy Bebop (if the crew actually had a chance to succeed) and Lupin the Third. The characters are not necessarily good guys – they are scammers, after all – but they are likable and occasionally do bad things for very good reasons. The show also makes it a point to paint the targets as cartoonishly evil, whether it’s a movie producer who doubles as a ruthless drug lord, a misogynistic prince, a literal war criminal, or an art dealer snob who is an all-around scumbag.

What It Brings to the Conversation

Back to the song that shares the title with the show, Great Pretender truly is a story about facades and the cons we pull off on ourselves. Like the song says, “My need is such I pretend too much / I’m lonely but no one can tell,” which easily applies to every single character in the show. With each new case, Great Pretender focuses on the backstory and motivation of a different member of Laurent’s crew. Each of them, with the notable exception of our main character Makoto, is already a renowned and very confident swindler, but the more we learn about them, the more we see why they’ve chosen this profession and get glimpses of the lives they left behind. Watching the characters play off one another is an absolute joy, but discovering the truth about them gives the show a surprising amount of depth.

Then there’s the show’s use of dubbing, which is one of the coolest things I’ve seen a show do — to actually play with the language barrier between the characters, and even between the audience and the characters. The first ten minutes of the first episode play out completely in Japanese even if you select the English dub, since the characters start out in Japan, speaking a few lines of English to communicate better. After a certain point, then, the show changes to full English (or full Japanese with the original audio track) as the voice actors switch. Even then, the show acknowledges that, as they travel to new locations, the characters will meet new people and new languages, and we meet characters that speak in other languages unsubtitled. It’s an intriguing way of turning the language barrier into an asset for the country-hopping story.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Not since Carole & Tuesday has an anime felt like it was made with a Western audience in mind. First of all, there’s the show’s structure, which divides the season into three movie length-arcs that are perfect for binging. Then there’s the international focus of the story, with references to real people and places (In-N-Out has a hilarious cameo). And, of course, we have the heists themselves, which are as twisty and surprising as they are thrilling and compelling watch.

Plus, if you are still somehow undecided, did I already mention that the end credits is a Freddie Mercury song performed by animated versions of his actual cats?

Watch this if you like: Lupin the Third, Cowboy Bebop, Ocean’s Eleven

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Great Pretender is now streaming on Netflix, with more episodes to come later this year.

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