This is a spoiler-free recommendation piece for the first 14 episodes of Netflix’s Great Pretender, which are now streaming. We’ll have a full review once the whole season has debuted.
Contrary to whatever Rick Sanchez might have you believe, heist stories rock. From Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing to Michael Mann’s Heat, not to mention Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Trilogy and 1969’s The Italian Job, the heist film is a celebrated fixture of action cinema for a reason. And that’s to say nothing of the notoriously good heist stories that the medium of anime has to offer in the form of Baccano! or Lupin the Third.
Netflix’s Great Pretender, the latest anime production from WIT Studio (Vinland Saga, Attack on Titan), director Hiro Kaburagi (91 Days, Speed Grapher), and screenwriter Ryota Kosawa, is a heist comedy tour-de-force with intriguing characters, beautiful vistas, and a scintillating, jazz-infused score.
Netflix’s Great Pretender
Great Pretender follows Makoto Edamura, a former straight-arrow turned con man who fancies himself as “Japan’s greatest swindler.” His low-level grifts soon catch the attention of the enigmatic, charismatic, and incorrigible gentleman thief Laurent Thierry who quickly takes a shine to the young Edamura. Their fates are quickly intertwined as Edamura is unwittingly coaxed into Thierry’s crew in their ongoing campaign to ingratiate themselves into the lives of the rich and infamous before taking them for all they’re worth. Aided by Laurent’s longtime associates Abby and Cynthia, Edamura grows as both a thief and as a person as he embarks on a whirlwind tour of international theft and fortune to ensnare the criminal elite.
Though Great Pretender might be Kosawa’s first time at bat when it comes to writing the scenario for an anime production, he’s anything but a rookie when it comes to the fine art of crafting a tight, serialized crime narrative. Known for his work on such live-action shows as AIBOU: Tokyo Detective Duo, Legal High, and last year’s The Confidence Man, Kosawa’s an old hand when it comes to guileful protagonists and sleight-of-hand storytelling. Each of the three arcs throughout the initial 14 episodes of the series released on Netflix is divided into three “cases,” each devoted to the con of one unscrupulous target or another in an exotic location. From the seething underbelly of Los Angeles to the verdant futurism of Singapore to the architectural beauty of London, Great Pretender is a show that knows that half of the appeal of watching someone pull off the perfect heist is watching them do it in a beautiful locale.
The Best Anime Series on Netflix Right Now
Speaking of which, the background art in this series is so drop-dead gorgeous it all but warrants its own starring role in the show’s opening credits. Studio Bamboo and Suuuu, each of whom who have produced backgrounds for shows like Vinland Saga, Eden of the East, and Devilman Crybaby, knock it out of the park with Great Pretender, creating highly-stylized background with bright, cel-shaded color palettes rife with eye-catching details that’ll likely have viewers clamoring for new desktop wallpapers at the end of every episode.
Speaking of the end— and matter of fact, beginning— of every episode, the music in this show is absolutely dynamite. Every episode is capped off by Freddie Mercury’s rousing cover of The Platters’ “Great Pretender,” complemented by a whimsical accompanying animation directed by Kaburagi himself. Composer Yutaka Yamada’s opening theme “G.P.” is a jazzy, big band ensemble piece that wouldn’t feel out of place in an episode of Cowboy Bebop, accompanied by a stunning opening title sequence directed by Kotomi Deai (Michiko & Hatchin) that feels reminiscent of legendary graphic designer Saul Bass’ work on Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest or Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas’ animation for Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. The show’s production as a whole is a stone-cold stunner from top to bottom, from the sound design of the series’ score to the savvy means by which the show itself navigates the boundaries and affordances of language and dialect with its voice-acting and dubbing, to say nothing of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s (Neon Genesis Evangelion) expert character designs.
What really drives the show’s persistent appeal is the strength of its characters, though. Each of the series’ four protagonists are complex human beings in their own right, with complicated pasts, relatable challenges, and lingering traumas that make their experiences believable and lived-in. Each case unfolds the histories of its main characters in one way or another, through Edamura, Abby, and finally Cynthia. The only one whose past is left unexplored for the most part is Monsieur Thierry himself, a character who, despite his affable disposition, hints at darker and seedier motivations behind his seemingly altruistic brand of thievery. With only the initial fourteen of the series’ twenty-three total episodes to go on, it appears that Great Pretender’s latter half will be devoted if not entirely, then predominantly to shedding more light on this conspicuously darkened corner of the series’ leading quartet.
Great Pretender is one of this year’s certified anime gems, an original series that boasts a level of polish, personality, and panache in terms of its production and presentation that’s frankly stunning to witness first-hand. It’s easily one of the best new anime to come out this year, not to mention one of the prettiest to look out, and a venerable addition to that coveted canon of anime shows you can confidently recommend to that one friend of yours that just doesn’t get anime. For the wealth of enjoyment you can get from watching this series compared to the time spent watching it, Great Pretender is a total steal in every sense of the word.