Netflix's 'Great Pretender' Is Like If 'Ocean's Eleven' Was a Kickass Anime Series

'Great Pretender' is the fun-as-hell heist content we needed this summer.

great pretender
Wit Studio
Wit Studio

As far as other shows, anime and otherwise, are concerned, it almost feels like an unfair advantage to pick a Freddie Mercury song for your end credits track. But Great Pretender, the thrilling new heist series that just landed on Netflix after premiering in Japan over the summer, fully embodies its namesake. The song is one of flagrant braggadocio, performed with all the swagger that one would expect from the Queen frontman, but the act is ironic, concealing the immense vulnerability and loneliness in the song’s lyrics, readily apparent as Mercury belts, “Oh yes, I'm the great pretender / Pretending I'm doing well / My need is such I pretend too much / I'm lonely but no one can tell." This is something every character in the Great Pretender anime series is doing, in one way or another. 

The story is split into three, several episode-long arcs, referred to as ‘Cases,’ following the exploits of the self-proclaimed greatest swindler in Japan, Makoto Edamura. He makes a living out of scamming tourists and locals alike, but soon gets in over his head when he tries to con Laurent Thierry, a genuine world-class crook. Directed by Hiro Kaburagi (91Days), with character designs from the legendary Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (who did the same for Neon Genesis Evangelion), and story from screenwriter Ryota Kosawa (the Parasyte live-action films), Great Pretender is Wit Studio’s third original series, following their popular manga adaptations of Attack on Titan and Vinland Saga. Both shows set an intimidatingly high bar for new work from the studio, but Great Pretender easily clears it.

The first case, set in Los Angeles, heads straight for the corruption hidden beneath the glamor of Hollywood, and unfolds as a more classic story of con-artistry. Many will think of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, in how the audience is taken through the ins-and-outs of the scheme only to have the rug pulled from underneath them at the last minute. This is only possible because of Edamura’s naivety, becoming an audience surrogate purely because of how much he buys into both Laurent’s and his own bullshit. With Edamura (or, as his companions often mockingly call him, ‘Edamame’), Great Pretender maintains the classic joys of such stories, balancing the thrills of each con with genuinely cutting emotional stakes. 

Besides the simple pleasures of seeing the nuts and bolts of its con-artistry, the show’s strongest asset is how effectively it folds the histories and motivations of its characters into the machinations and twists of each new heist. Each character pretends that they are above being hurt, and each new case shows their facades crumble, starting with Edamura’s pretense at being his country’s greatest con-man. For all his bluster that we see at the beginning, his sincerity and idealism often put him out of his depth (even if he protests that he’s a strong swimmer, ha ha). But the show is not so cynical that Edamura’s earnesty is punished as often as it is mocked – as each new case reveals the victims of their mark, he often serves as the empathetic link between the affected and the con.

His compatriots are a little more hardened by well-earned cynicism: There’s Abbie, the group’s anti-social jack-of-all-trades, the hedonistic and detached Cynthia, and Laurent, a smooth-talking and unrepentant dirtbag gentleman thief. At first, each member of the crew appears as a fairly typical figure within this genre of story, but the show looks beyond those stock personalities to reveal something a lot more interesting, and often tragic.

In some respects, Great Pretender is very much a classic kind of caper, signposting as much with the Saul Bass-esque visuals of its opening credits. Though that opening suggests a pastiche in the same vein of something like Cowboy Bebop or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the jokes here are a little less sharp. The crew is an endearing bunch of goofballs and are mostly very well written, but if there’s one main issue with the show, it’s in its insistence that crassness is by itself funny. It’s most effective when it’s less forceful in its approach, but even so, it’s never obnoxious, and all three cases are fun enough that the quips don’t really take precedence -- it’s just extra flavor.

With its jazzy soundtrack from composer Yutaka Yamada (which is punctuated by some catchy original songs, one for each arc) and ensemble cast of smooth talking scoundrels and swindlers, Great Pretender calls to mind the long-running series Lupin III, especially with its international escapades. Speaking of which, Pretender does something that show never did, which was actually pay mind to the language barriers that pop up in each new location. Of course, for the purposes of the story, things are translated, but only for the main characters, and after a certain point. Even in the dub, the show begins in Japanese, and after Edamura and Laurent first converse, a message appears -- "EVERYTHING FROM THIS POINT WILL BE TRANSLATED TO JAPANESE" -- and the voice actors switch. It’s a fascinating way of navigating the language barrier, making sure to establish what the characters actually sound like to each other before switching to the universal language of the dub or the sub. It’s just one indication of how globally minded Great Pretender is, something that manifests in rich and surprising ways throughout the series, from its casual Western references about Robert De Niro to a tonal about-face to comment on the modern-day imperialism and interventionism of the USA and the UK, which feels like a pretty big topic for a heist comedy.

great pretender anime
Wit Studio

With their first original series in some time, Wit Studio feels like it’s unshackled from any kind of aesthetic restraints, and it’s fun to see them relish that opportunity in Great Pretender. The studio made its name on works that either take place in or emulate the visuals of the past, with Attack on Titan’s mix of pseudo-medieval and mid-20th century garb and Vinland Saga’s viking villages and old English hamlets. Both were defined by pretty, but mostly natural hues, which Great Pretender discards entirely; its background colors resemble Art Deco travel posters infused with vivid psychedelic color for a distinctive new look. The studio is also a proven hand at dynamic and exciting action, and though con-artistry is less physical work than more traditional robbery, the show delivers regardless -- even handling CG with grace and precision. 

But despite Wit owning this new freedom, the show still found itself trapped in another way, in the West at least: the purgatory that is Netflix acquisition. It’s a shame that after a delay that was admittedly much shorter than that for Studio MAPPA’s Dorohedoro (another Netflix Original Anime), Great Pretender spent time on ice only to arrive with so little ceremony. It deserved better than Netflix jail (read: the mysterious vanishing of an anime show bought by the service until it’s suddenly released), and with the service buying up a lot of property in the anime streaming arms race, it’s not encouraging that such a major player barely promotes even its own originals. Especially when Great Pretender (and its English dub) delivers on its promise of excitement and goofy comedy of that one trailer that Netflix graciously dropped months ago and never mentioned again.

Still, it’s extremely fun and often even moving viewing, mixing the simple pleasures of seeing rich people being made to look like utter fools with insight into the truth behind the detachment required of con-artists. An exciting caper that bases its thrills and twists entirely in its strong character work, Great Pretender is far more than just a great excuse to listen to a Freddie Mercury song every 20-odd minutes.

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Kambole Campbell is a contributor to Thrillist, on Twitter @kambolecampbell.