Review: GREAT PRETENDER – What WIT Was Made For

GREAT PRETENDER

Back when WIT Studio was founded in 2012, it was originally intended as a place for new productions under the IG Port umbrella. But, in recent years, the studio’s output has stagnated somewhat: faced with the success of Attack on Titan, it felt as if the team was being put in a box. While such productions as The Ancient Magus’ Bride and After the Rain certainly broke the mould, dark action series along the lines of Vinland Saga and Owari no Seraph got most of the attention.

GREAT PRETENDER changes all of that.

In many ways, this Netflix-produced anime was what the studio was made for. George Wada attempted to leave Production I.G. in 2012 because he wanted to work on new projects, not simply pump out new versions of Psycho-Pass. You could say the same thing about Attack on Titan: while The Final Season’s studio change appears to be a simple case of scheduling, one can’t help but wonder if it signifies a broader shift towards more original projects. And if that certainly is the case, then GREAT PRETENDER gives us a whole lot to look forward to.

An Anime For People Who Don’t Like Anime

Ryota Kosawa, screenwriter for the series, took on the project after being approached by WIT President George Wada in the hopes of creating an anime not just for people who like anime. In many ways, this makes Netflix the perfect place for it, as it casts a wide net in terms of both content and audience. But GREAT PRETENDER also combines the best of Lupin III and Ocean’s Eleven, making for an entertaining watch no matter the viewer.

Our protagonist, Makoto Edamura, is dropped in the world of high-stakes con artistry after mistakenly trying to swindle the enigmatic Frenchman, Laurent Thierry. Joining them are two others: Abigail “Abby” Jones and Cynthia Moore, who round out the series’ charismatic cast. Of course, they come in a quartet, because this has worked so many times in the past.

And sometimes a quintet…

If GREAT PRETENDER’s characters evoke the well-balanced chemistry of Lupin, Jigen, Goemon and Fujiko from Lupin III, then the heists themselves resemble the pioneering work of Steven Soderbegh. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Ryota Kosawa wasn’t influenced by the likes of these considering his pedigree in the genre, but no matter. Each one of the heists is perfectly put together, taking us from conception to execution with just the right amount of slip ups along the way. If you’ve been looking for some high-stakes action, then look no further.

Where GREAT PRETENDER does slip up, then, is how it integrates its characters into its story. At multiple times throughout the series, there is a disconnect between the characters that are on screen and the heist that is taking place – this can be most firmly grasped in Case 2, Singapore Sky, where Abby’s back story feels a little inconsequential to the actual events taking place. Still, the actual content is pretty good, so I’m willing to give it a pass.

GREAT PRETENDER’s Production Goes the Extra Mile

At this point, what I should mention is the fact that I am not familiar with any of Ryota Kosawa’s previous work. The writer has previously provided the screenplays for both Confidence Man JP films and the original TV series, which were all very well received in Japan. Even so, I’m willing to bet that GREAT PRETENDER is very similar, as they even use the word ‘confidence man’ in it.

In any case, what I am familiar with is the previous work of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. The Evangelion character designer is a bonafide industry legend, providing the original concepts for a set of characters that have been endlessly reinterpreted and repurposed for merchandising. Yet, that’s not the only thing that he has worked on: Wolf Children, Summer Wars, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, to name but a few. He’s much more than just ‘the Eva guy.’

Dorothy

In this sense, perhaps it is no surprise that GREAT PRETENDER’s character designs are so great. But they really are, and I can’t say it enough: blending realism with expression, they show perfectly well that depicting foreigners doesn’t have to mean resorting to stereotypes or repurposing them entirely. The anime industry as a whole would do well to watch and learn.

Joining Sadamoto in his excellent production work is undoubtedly Yusuke Takeda. As art director, he worked alongside countless others to bring the show’s wonderful, unique aesthetic to life. Inspired apparently by the paintings of Bryan Cox, the show’s background designs and overall color palette depict such locations as Los Angeles and London in a way you’ve never seen before. Considering that they are both very common in the type of media we consume, then, I’d consider that quite an achievement.

The Problem With WIT Studio

There are lots of other elements to GREAT PRETENDER’s production that are worth talking about, such as the music and the voice acting, but we’ll have to leave it there. For now, it is worth talking about two things: how was WIT Studio able to come up with such a success, and what might it mean for them in the future?

In answer to that first question, it was undoubtedly the entrance of such creative partners as Ryota Kosawa and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. As already mentioned, Kosawa’s previous experience in the heist/con subgenre meant that he was able to put together a story that combined all of the best elements of the genre, along with fantastic characters. Furthermore, for someone like Sadamoto, creating characters based on foreigners wasn’t a problem – any lesser artist might have failed to live up to the challenge.

But that is where the problem comes in. While Hiro Kaburagi as director is fine, the two best things about the show come from outside WIT Studio. Getting them on board for another project won’t be easy, and they might not even want to. This leaves WIT in an unfortunate position, as they might not be able to repeat GREAT PRETENDER’s success.

WIT Studio has, for a long time, been one of my favorites. Alongside the likes of Studio SHAFT and Science SARU, it was WIT that really clued me in to the power of animation. And I was one of those people who watched Kabenari of the Iron Fortress while it was airing, slightly confused by the original anime project’s obvious similarities to Attack on Titan.

What I am trying to say is this: for a long time, WIT Studio has been struggling to what it was meant to do. GREAT PRETENDER feels like the first step towards that, but it may also be the last.


You can watch GREAT PRETENDER via Netflix. Season 2 is not yet available worldwide, but is available in Japan with English subtitles.

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