Great Pretender is easily one of the best shows to have come out in the past year — it’s got style, expressive animation, and one hell of a soundtrack. Somehow, I’ve realised, it remains one of the only heist-anime there is, which is a travesty. To fully understand why Great Pretender is, well, great, I’m going to digress for a bit and talk about heists in general.
Heist movies and TV shows are obviously not new, and they seem to have developed a kind of pay-to-win formula. Typically, heists feature an ensemble cast that each have exactly one personality gimmick and nothing more. This cast is really just a vehicle for the Rube Goldberg-esque plan they seek to execute, which is by far the most compelling part of any heist. The plan goes wrong somehow, but of course, our 300 IQ smooth-talking protagonist had secretly planned for things to go this way from the very beginning.
To me, this is the worst part of any heist-related media — realising that all the hard work that you, the viewer, have put into understanding how the heist in question works, was ultimately pointless. What then, does Pretender do to mitigate this? Well, kind of ironically, it doesn’t pretend to be about consistency, or the ability to apply impregnable logic to whatever plan the cast comes up with. It is, in other words, unabashedly nonsensical. Now, this does seem like a bit of a cop-out, as some way for the show to both have its cake and eat it too.
Granted, if it were just that, if it were just another wannabe Gurren Lagann, then yes, it’d be terrible. The catch though, with Great Pretender, is that although it revels in nonsense when it comes to the heists, this allows it to laser focus on each member of its cast. For instance, take Abigail Jones, who is deathly scared of flying planes, but is forced to compete in the world’s largest air-race. Over the course of the race, you’re shown exactly why it is that Abby is so afraid, and her reasons (that I will choose not to spoil!) make perfect sense. Knowing why makes things so much more nail-biting while watching her grapple with her PTSD and a figure from her past, all the while attempting to overcome her fears. The point here is that if we weren’t told why, this would be yet another gimmick-y character with a precisely chosen flaw to artificially heighten the tension.
The amazing thing is that you can do this sort of analysis for most of the main cast. There are only four real heists, but each one is a kind of character study of a different member of the cast. Now, if this were all Pretender had to offer, it’d be a good show, great, even. There is however one last ace up its sleeve, that comes in the form of the main character, Makoto. Makoto serves as the POV character for most of the show, and although I wouldn’t exactly refer to him as a ‘moral’ compass, he does help ground the show. A lot of Makoto’s appeal is that, although a con artist, he plays the straight man to the rest of the zany cast. He is, at least to begin with, a ‘reactive’ character, rather than an active one.
Personally, I actually find reactive characters, i.e., characters whose personality and presence in a show is determined by how they react to things, incredibly dull. Sure, they can be fun for a little while but the appeal wears off quick, and when it does, it becomes excruciatingly painful to see the same reactions over and over. Right after the first heist ends though, it becomes clear that the show as a whole is about Makoto’s journey as a character, from reactive to active. Each heist forces him to confront his own ineptitude, and in the periods of time in-between heists, you really see how things have changed. That’s one of the other strengths of Pretender — it gives you plenty of time to breathe in between high-octane high-stakes heists. Sometimes, years will pass before the next heist, and Makoto has to spend those years rebuilding and restarting life, each time growing a little as a person.
By the time the final heist rolls around, it becomes even clearer that Makoto is not a vehicle for the heists, but that the heists are a vehicle for him to confront his past. Like I said earlier, each heist does have its own unique ass-pull, but the interesting thing is that Makoto is often unaware of this, which is something he constantly grapples with and is insecure about. Watching him grow more and more frustrated with the rest of the cast until his eventual implosion as a character during the final heist, that much more exciting and, well, heartbreaking.
I won’t spoil much more, but suffice it to say that there will come a point when you realize that it was always, always about Makoto. Not just in a narrative sense, but in the most literal way possible. When that realization hits, it recontextualizes the entire show, taking it from being some goofy semi-episodic heist show to being something much, much more.
The show is itself an exercise in misdirection, a ‘heist’ if you will. All according to plan, I’m sure :)