“Oh yes I’m the great pretender
Pretending I’m doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I’m lonely but no one can tell”
If you’re not aware these are the opening words of the song The Great Pretender by The Platters, more commonly known by the Freddy Mercury cover. And the song happens to be the ending theme of the anime with the same name. If you’ve not seen it, here is a short summary. Great Pretender (GP) follows a group of international con(fidence) men who pretend to be someone else to gain a lot of money. During the 2 seasons we mainly follow the newest addition to the swindler group, Makoto, while the group scheme their way to riches.
But there is a catch with the show, as it does not use a standard structure. It has its first season of 14 episodes divided in 3 cases, which allows for a bit larger and deeper story arcs then your regular show. For example the first case called “Los Angeles Connection” has 5 episodes over which the audience gets to know the main characters and become acquainted with the format. Each subsequent case allows the writers to explore a bit more of the characters while season 2 is actually a film length case divided over 9 episodes.
Look beyond the surface
When I like a show I tend to look beyond the first layer of story to find out what the writers actually are trying to tell us. To decipher why I like the show. And I have to say GP was pretty on the nose. While case 1: “Los Angeles Connection” was overall pretty light hearted. Case 2: “Singapore Sky” shows us not so pleasant flashbacks. Flashbacks of a past, where young Abigail’s life was suddenly changed by war. This was also the first time where my interest was even more peaked. Because while it is absolutely possible to write a few amazing con stories similar to the first one, I did not expect the personal stakes. And while it is overly convenient to have all the cases have some relation to one of the main characters backstory, it does provide us with a character study on how people deal with loss.
Loss and forgiveness
The main theme of this show is dealing with loss and forgiveness. We see characters losing a loved one and losing the future you imagined. It says life isn’t fair. Not for that intelligent young boy who lost his mother due to an illness; not for that girl who’s parents died in a bombing and not for the girl abandoned by her boyfriend who chose the promise of a career over ethics and their relationship.
What I believe GP does rather nicely is showing that everybody deals with a rough situation in their own way. For example Cynthia drinks her pain away and lashes out when that doesn’t help. And Abigail closes herself off from the world, rarely showing emotions and relying mostly on own skills rather than others. But for every loss shown there is a sense of healing in the end. Abigail literally says she forgave herself, Cynthia got another shot with Thomas and Laurent’s mind is more at ease when they’ve finished the last con.
Setup and pay-off
In the end, the first 3 cases are just a setup so Laurent can test Makoto if he is good enough to help him finish that last con. That is why case 4 (Wizard of Far East) has 9 episodes. It has a lot of ground to cover to get the viewer up to speed and to finish the show. The previous 14 episodes are needed so the viewer gets acquinted with the characters, their role and relationships with each other. Because all those three elements are tested in case 4.
This is also the reason the title card changes three times in season two. It reflects the story. Introduction to the case, background and completing the con.
So does all this apparent preparation pay off in the last episodes? In a way it does. But it is not to my personal satisfaction. Wizard of Far East is a story I would have liked more if it was slowly seeded in. The way it is brought is just too convenient. And while it gives new meaning to the stellar closing credits and raises questions that season 1 certainly does not; it also puts loss and forgiveness so front and center that it might prevent people from recommending the show to others. Which is a real shame. It is a great show with its own art style and soundtrack which both fit the narrative like a glove. A relaxed but sharp style, softened in important character moments and all out in your face when everything goes smoothly.
Who is the Great Pretender?
I would have liked this show to shine more. To have more episodes to work towards the final confrontation with the past. To allow the characters to breathe more while doing their swindling. Forgiveness does not happen overnight and it would have been nice if we could have more perspective from the other characters in their respective cases and how it made an impact on them later down the line. We get this tiny moment with Abigail in the last episode but we don’t know how she got there or when it happened. I really like it when a show leaves things ambiguous, but I feel GP spoon feeds the closing narrative to the viewer. Without seeing Wizard of Far East I would not have been able to tell you who the Great Pretender of this show is. I would probably put money on Makoto, since he is our PoV character. But after finishing the show I would like to think it is Studio Wit themselves, pretending GP is one thing, while it actually is completely something else. And should you doubt my words, I only ask you to read the closing lyrics of the song.
“Yes I’m the great pretender
Just laughin’ and gay like the clown
I seem to be what I’m not, you see
I’m wearing my heart like a crown
Pretending that you’re still around