Great Pretender – Episode 1

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today we’ll be exploring the first episode of one of 2020’s most impressive productions, the energetic and visually dazzling Great Pretender. Now, I’ve actually seen the first two arcs of Great Pretender, and have arrived at my own conclusions (a fine-enough heist narrative with outrageously good visual design), so I’ll be bringing a somewhat more informed perspective to this rewatch. But to catch everyone up to speed, what exactly is Great Pretender?

Judging by staff alone, it’d be easy to pin the show as one of 2020’s highlights. The production’s angular, expressive character designs could only come from one artist: Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, the legendary character designer who handled both Evangelion and FLCL’s character art. Meanwhile, the show’s gorgeous backgrounds, blending realistic line art with simplified, impressionistic color palettes, bear the clear mark of their own creator: Yuusuke Takeda, the art director responsible for The Eccentric Family’s marvelous background aesthetic. Topped off with a director who’s well acquainted with these sorts of narratives, having spearheaded the altogether reasonable 91 Days, and you end up with a production that seems destined for greatness. So how does it all shake out?

Episode 1

As appropriate for a heist drama, we open with a classic “how did I get here” kerfuffle, with our protagonist suspended from the top of the Hollywood sign. I feel like full books could be written on the pros and cons of cold opens like this, where a story is essentially promising that things will eventually get exciting, or offering a question like “how do you think this character got into this situation?”

It always feels at least a little hacky, but that’s almost part of its appeal. For a story like this, a tongue-in-cheek heist narrative about people who consistently narrate their own reality, subtly implying they might be feeding the audience some untrustworthy, dramatically heightened line actually helps establish the tone of the narrative. Either way, a choice like this is not neutral – it’s ostentatious, draws attention to the storyteller, and should be used with care. If you’re simply opening with your most exciting scene because you feel that’s the only way to keep the audience engaged, you are putting a band-aid over a much deeper problem

Follows up with one of my favorite anime visual gags, as we see the character struggling to free himself from a great distance, which emphasizes how useless his efforts truly are

I’m not going to mention how beautiful every single background here is, but rest assured, they are all absurdly beautiful. I love how Takeda is sort of using block colors as an overlay to the precise lineart – colors don’t always match to the lineart of the scenery, and instead shift gradually as a procession of thick bands, implying the effect of sunlight on the environment

And now a neat joke of anticlimax, as his scream is cut off by our flashback

As we zoom in on a Japanese shop, we see another neat flex of background art. The lineart often doesn’t even conform to the actual shapes of objects – it’s instead used to highlight rough shadows, using stark, defined blocks of color, rather than the gradual shift in hue you’d expect from light playing on a single-color surface

A man attempts to scam an old lady into buying a water filter

But it’s actually part of a larger scam, as the initial, clearly untrustworthy agent is used to flatter the target’s ego, before they send in this nice, trustworthy young man for the kill. They’re playing on a few classic human weaknesses here. By starting with the old man, they convince their target that they’ve already “seen through the trick,” which instills a confidence that’s easy to exploit. Also, the second agent never actually tries to sell anything – rather, he plays on this old woman’s reasonable doubt regarding the government’s safety metrics, essentially having her sell herself the water filter out of fear

And of course, they’re working together. I love the crooked smiles of these Sadamoto designs

Our lead is named Edamura

And time for the absolutely delightful OP, which expands the show’s usual background art wizardry into the realm of silhouettes and base geometry, while pairing them with an energetic jazz track, and also just telling us the story of the arc to come

The two try a scheme on a blond foreigner, but it’s clear even from his eyes that he’s more assessing the bit than falling for it

“As expected of someone born in the ‘90s!” Oh god, don’t tell me that

Edamura’s partner is Kudo

They’re setting Edamura up for a hard fall, praising him as the best swindler in Japan, and even having him tell his friend not to get a big head

The tatami floors work nicely with this spinning overhead shot

This show is full of playful interplay between its layouts and its character art. That shot beside Edamura, looking up from his capsule machines really emphasized his sense of power there – and now, the two of them squishing their faces into this tiny square humorously underlines their sense of entrapment

Some great cuts of animation for Edamura’s panicked escape, too

Oh wow, the color palettes for this bridge shot. Goddamn, Takeda

Edamura has the reckless confidence of youth, certain he can get away with any number of petty scams, even after that last situation blew up in his face

Both of these actors are trying their best, but if they’re trying to imply either of them are fluent English speakers, it’s not working

Of course, this self-aware narrative certainly knows that, and transitions out of it with a winking title card for the audience

A film producer named “Eddie Cassano” was just released from jail. A more convincing American name than most anime-American names, though it feels like it’s trying too hard to evoke a mafia thug tone, at the expense of its believability as a producer’s name

Edamura’s wild confidence prompts him to claim he can sell this guy’s Japanese merchandise at a higher price. All the while, the camera lingers on this man’s hand as he caresses the stick shift, a flourish of character acting that conveys his concealed delight at how this situation is playing out. Literally framing Edamura as putty in his hands

And that extends naturally into the next scene, as Edamura’s new “friend” suits him up to be the perfect accomplice

The blonde guy is Laurent, thank you show for finally giving me a way to refer to him

And Edamura’s given name is Makoto

Dear lord, this shot of Eddie’s mansion is incredible. I tend to prefer quieter color palettes, but Great Pretender is the perfect show for these extremely loud color contrasts, this war between saturated blues and yellows

And as before, frequently the lines of color don’t actually follow the lineart, but rather offer a rough approximation of how sunlight would fall across the layers of the terrain

Laurent is delighting in watching Edamura realize he’s in over his head

Well, I suppose Eddie is literally a member of the mafia, so his name kinda fits

“Hollywood is deteriorating fast.” I hear you, dude

And we meet our third lead, Abbie, introduced as one of Eddie’s girls

Abbie takes a sample of Laurent’s “high quality synthetic drugs,” and puts on a big show of going crazy over it. Feels like the victory conditions for this con are impossibly narrow; how will they ensure no one except their planted conspirators ever sample the fake drug? No dealer invests in a product like that

Great shot of Abbie blissing out in the pool, though. This show’s color work is extraordinary

Laurent knows that, and he’s therefore playing very close to the edge, constantly acting like he’d be willing to toss around samples. It’s a hell of a bluff

Elegant contrast of light and shadow as Laurent meets back up with Edamura. There’s an escape route behind Edamura, a literal tunnel with light at the end, while Laurent is framed as an avatar of the shadow, drawing Edamura into a darker world

Turns out, every element of Edamura’s route here was planted by Laurent, from the lady he “scammed” onward

Ah, this beautiful OP. Cats crooning to Freddie Mercury, what could be better

And Done

Haha, I’d forgotten just how good that premiere really is. Great Pretender’s first episode is dynamite, demonstrating the beautiful fusion of Sadamoto and Takeda at every turn, and proceeding with absolute confidence from start to finish. Not every show needs to make some great statement about humanity; it’s admirable simply to be charming, exciting, and beautiful, and Great Pretender is certainly all three of those. What a treat to see artists this confident at work!

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