Great Pretender – Episode 2

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. You down for some Great Pretender? Personally, I’m pretty jazzed about it. The show’s first episode was an energetic and beautiful heist introduction, elevated substantially by the one-two punch of Sadamoto’s character designs and Takeda’s background art.

Sadamoto’s designs seem absolutely perfect for a show about a bunch of swindlers; their crooked angles, sharp edges, knowing eyes, and perpetually broken smiles are all ideal for depicting the untrustworthy swagger of confidence men. Meanwhile, Takeda’s characteristic use of simplified photorealism and bold color is here elevated through an impressionistic approach to light and shading, wherein splashes of color don’t actually conform to the background linework, but rather simulate the emotive effect of light falling across the scenery. The story so far has mostly just been a workmanly heist prologue, but with art design this fantastic, I’m feeling well-fed regardless. Let’s see what our crooks get up to in episode two!

Episode 2

And of course, we start off right where episode one began, having caught up on Edamura’s reckless journey to the Hollywood sign. The show cheated just a little in getting him up here – we can easily infer that Laurent and Abbie tied him up here to convince him to join them, but the connective tissue to get him from Eddie’s mansion to here is vaguely defined. This wasn’t the inevitable conclusion to his acts in the first episode, but the image of the show’s protagonist hanging from the Hollywood sign is just such an evocative, perfectly show-selling idea, that the writers used a bit of narrative sleight of hand in order to bypass the narrative’s wobbly points, and kinda railroad him into this end point

I should make it clear, I don’t consider that a “failing” of the writing. Storytelling plays by the same rules as classic magic tricks – you are trying to make the audience believe in something impossible, and so you must direct their attention with your performance, while concealing the strings that actually make your trick work. Great Pretender kept our attention focused on the brinkmanship between Laurent and Edamura, and when Laurent revealed his winning play (“everything you did since meeting that old woman in Japan was orchestrated by me”), we cut straight to Edamura on the sign – a shift that makes perfect emotional sense (Laurent won, thus Edamura is fully defeated), but creaky literal sense

And yeah, they cut him down immediately, because he wasn’t even really resisting them. But I agree with their perspective – a hapless would-be confidence man hanging upside down from the Hollywood sign is exactly the experience this show is selling, condensed perfectly into one memorable image. That image is worth the artifice required to arrange it

We flash back to Edamura at a hospital, meeting with a woman who’s presumably his mother. I like how the title card announcing this is a Japanese hospital allows us to confer this is a flashback without any further information

“Because of your father, you have such a handicap.” So presumably his father was an untrustworthy man, while Edamura worked hard to play within society’s rules

Naaah, definitely not. The very next scene, he’s selling snake oil in a scheme with the old man from the first episode. Once again, their scheme is a classic formula that plays on more weaknesses of human psychology. Initially, his miracle tea clearly seems like a scam – but once his partner in the crowd “forces him” to lower the price, that partner’s enthusiasm makes the rest of the crowd feel like they’re getting one over the salesman, too. In truth, the final price was always the price they were intending to sell at – but by introducing the song and dance beforehand, you also sell the audience the idea that they’re outsmarting the salesman, and getting a steal. Audiences love to believe they’re outsmarting people – and it is precisely when they think they’re winning that they’re most vulnerable to being tricked

I sort of relate to this kind of scheming, because the act of tricking an audience into giving you money shares many similarities with the act of tricking an audience into caring about your story. Storytellers are all swindlers, using their understanding of dramatic structure and human psychology to make people care about things that aren’t real

Turns out the old man actually is his boss at this new venture… and yep, his products are a fraud. So even while trying to make good, Edamura ends up getting branded as a swindler

Oh wow, love these red-and-black layouts for his interrogation. And the shading around the light! This show’s visual style is incredible

This reunion with his mother is crushing. She tells him “life doesn’t end because of one or two mistakes,” but her own position puts a clear timer on his efforts

And of course, his criminal record prevents him from getting any future work. It seems that Japan shares the United States’ system of using prison to mark people as permanent undesirables, rather than human beings who deserve to be reintegrated into society

And he’s too late. More phenomenal shots as we return to the hospital room, now with his mother under a sheet. Clinging, barren branches and desaturated colors reflect Edamura’s mental state, while also telling us how much time he’s spent in this limbo

Another beautiful shot as Edamura meets up with his old employer, with rich contrasts of blue and yellow that visually convey Edamura’s fall from grace

Oh my god, the colors of this sunset. This establishing shot of a coastal restaurant exemplifies many of this show’s visual strengths – the pop art fusion of wild coloration and photorealistic linework, the way the “banding” approach to lighting guides the eye and creates a sense of cohesion, the spectacular balance of loud, seemingly discordant colors. What a treat this show’s backgrounds are

Abbie is wisely hoarding all of the lobster

Edamura claims “drugs were the one thing I didn’t want to touch.” An odd consequence of Japan’s draconian drug laws, that even an anime swindler would find them unacceptable

Abbie’s lowkey affect is a good counterpoint to Edamura’s manic energy

Of course, all it took was a gold watch to convince Kudo to sell out Edamura. Brilliant of him to go into the con artist trade with the same guy who sold him out in the first place

When Edamura asks why Laurent didn’t just ask him, Laurent admits it’s just fun to fuck with a kid who thinks he’s a big tough swindler. Fair point

Edamura attempts to demonstrate his skills and independence again, by tricking another restaurant patron into paying for their meal. But through this very action, he’s ultimately just demonstrating what a kid he still is: his childish insecurity about letting someone else pay for a meal, and his reckless approach to scams, where he’s constantly putting himself in danger and earning enemies for the sake of petty payoffs. Quality scammers don’t play confidence games to earn a few bucks; their trustworthy demeanor is worth far more than that, as it is what allows them to draw in the true hauls

Hah, they actually mention the Golden Raspberries

Eddie took over the west coast drug trade by consolidating three gangs. Salazar, his bodyguard, was the head of one of those gangs

His crimes expand outwards in the ways you’d expect from a major drug lord – the trafficking of doped-up victims, killing of defectors or competitors, and requisite tax evasion

So our swindlers seem to be a kind of “steal from the villainous to give to ourselves” deal

More gorgeous colors as Laurent meets Eddie in a fancy club. These blues, browns, and purples are all so rich; it’s hard to make a palette this loud feel unobtrusive, but Great Pretender manages it

“People only want to believe truths that are convenient. In exchange for people’s outrageous hopes and dreams, we’re selling them an illusion.” That’s pretty much the essence of it, whether you’re working in thievery or politics

And Laurent reveals he paid for dinner, as well. “Despite how we look, we only trick villains.” His philosophy is likely pretty close to Edamura’s own morality, but at this point in his life, Edamura is using swindling to lash out at the world, and prove he has merit. It’s an utterly self-absorbed process for him, a way he tends to his insecurities

He holds on to the cat he gave his mother, a lingering symbol of the man he wanted to be

Edamura’s hoping for a melancholy, silent goodbye, but then Abbie tackles him

He starts ranting about how there’s “no justice in this world,” but it’s clear Abbie sees him as the child he is. She immediately responds that he’s only concerned with such lofty nonsense because he grew up in Japan, where peace is a given. She has lived much harder than he has, and has no patience for his petty tantrums

Not to say Edamura’s feelings are unreasonable from his own perspective; I mean, they did drag him here. But it makes sense that Abbie can’t take him seriously

Love the symmetry of this shot of Laurent pouring his morning coffee. The clean lineart of the backgrounds lends itself to lots of neat tricks of visual geometry

The next day, Laurent assumes Edamura’s abandoned them – but he was actually off with Eddie, getting the price doubled. At last, he can feel like he’s pulling some weight

And Done

Yeah, that was a pretty bulletproof followup, too. As expected, it slowed down the story’s pacing somewhat, as we’re no longer trying to sell the audience on the product – they’re already onboard. Instead, we dove into the character work necessary to inform future conflicts, as we learned about Edamura’s history, and brought him to an uneasy peace with Laurent’s crew. Edamura is an emphatically young person, full of reckless energy and a desperate need for approval, and this episode’s portrayal of his youth clashing against Laurent and Abbie’s experience was convincing and entertaining throughout. Plus, oh right, this is also one of the most beautiful productions of recent years, with character and background art by two of anime’s greatest working talents. Not a bad sophomore episode!

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