We only scam bad guys, we don’t kill anyone, and we’re not a team–screw up and you’re out. As far as “rules of engagement” go, it’s a pretty unambiguous motto. But where does one draw the line on right and wrong? At what point does “team chemistry” transcend into the realm of intimacy? Generally speaking, popular American media that has portrayed ‘the heist’ rarely steps into these spaces. Be it the glitzy and glamorous scaffolding of an Oceans film, or the dry undressing performed by something like Rick and Morty, the heist flick seldom uses its pretense for substance and often opts to merely act as a spectacle in and of itself. However, much like its plucky protagonist, Great Pretender is a show that uses extravagance to underscore its narrative intent and give us a different look at how such stories unfold, taking the time to show us exactly how ornately some plans “come together”.
Great Pretender starts with a fresh faced Makoto Edamura honing his conman craft in Japan, where we see him running small time grifts on ostensibly out-of-touch old folks and lifting billfolds from would be tourists. But in meeting Laurent Thierry, Edamura comes to be introduced to an eclectic assortment of shysters, marks, and soon-to-be friends. Affectionately referred to as ‘Edamame’ by Laurent and the gang (edamame can also mean ‘un-ripened soy beans’) the wordplay is artfully appropriate. Throughout the four chapters thus far, Makoto travels from Japan to Los Angeles, Singapore, London, and Shanghai, growing as a confidence man–a growth that runs parallel to that of the series itself.
Initiating with, to me anyway, a relatively bland premise: Laurent and Makoto meet up with the sightly Abigail Jones and conspire to rob a gangster wannabe movie producer. Amusing and showy, complete with a few twists and turns, we arrive at a suitable conclusion of Great Pretender‘s first chapter. Much like with any of the aforementioned heist media, I felt compelled to watch and absorb the glitz of the upper classes, the wit and cunning of the thieves, and Wit Studio’s (The Ancient Magus’ Bride, Vinland Saga) beautifully rendered vistas. I was curious to see in what new locale the story would continue. But, impressively so, the more the story progressed the more I felt it was evolving from ‘flashy concept’ into ‘actual art’: a piece of media with something to say rather than merely something to do. A child scorned, a love lost, a promise broken–Great Pretender is the final question to be asked of corruption, of what redemption is really worth if it’s even possible at all. With each new arc, it felt as though these characters were revealing themselves to me, to Makoto, through their action, through their inaction, and in their willingness to commit to increasingly convoluted schemes. So too does Makoto grow, as he learns to not just empathize with his cohort, but to use that empathy to further his understanding of the world around him.
As the story plods along (without spoiling anything, because part of the fun is always watching everything play out), Great Pretender goes from being comically contrived to deeply dire within the span of its mere 4 chapters (23 episodes total). Within each of those chapters, we see the main characters confront their past, working with it and leaning on it for their new criminal ends. And while some of these histories and traumas may seem more compelling than others, their navigation serves as a quiet but emotional expression of compassion. A gentle reminder that things aren’t always what they seem and that our innermost motivations are often unbeknownst to others, much less ourselves, without some serious thought and soul searching.
A sprawling international adventure, Great Pretender is a story about people. How we get along and how we don’t. How we hurt each other and love each other and the ways in which we carry on in spite of it all. Its colourful cast of characters is rivaled only by the gorgeously rendered vistas in which the heists unfold. Thought provoking and fun, Great Pretender is a lightweight watch worth looking into.
Image Source: Wit Studio via Netflix