At the risk of sounding like an ass, there’s an almost unbearable mediocrity to the visual direction to a lot of anime (and all other artforms for the record). Not to sound reductive, however, I find it hard to be compelled by the aesthetic of most seasonal shows that come and go, not to name any names. And I bring this up because I think it is frustrating to see what can be done through art, only to see the same thing over and over again. The value of “the artstyle” can often be overlooked in certain analytical circles, which I think is foolish in a medium defined by moving pictures. The color direction, cinematography, and such of films and series like ‘Her’ (2013), ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ (2018), ‘Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken’ (2020), just to name a few, are timeless, and add an immeasurable amount of value to my experience. And if there’s anything to applaud shows like ‘Blend S’ for (no offense), they certainly make the best all the more striking.
In the 2020 Netflix series ‘Great Pretender’, the greatest con-artist of Japan, Makoto “Edamame” Edamura, accidentally starts working for “confidence man” Laurent Thierry after unsuccessfully trying to scam them, leading to a series of ‘Oceans Eleven’-like heists. And with one of the most diverse cast and equally exceptional productions I’ve seen in a minute, the Hiro Kaburagi and Ryota Kosawa made series packs a real punch. Seeing the poster should make you understand well enough
Mild spoilers ahead
And it delivers for sure, my reaction to watching the first couple of episodes was that of pure excitement. “Fuck this is good” to quote my exact comment. From the angular and triangular character-design to the variety of personalities, this was uncannily refreshing. The first five episodes follow the main cast as they try to scam one of the biggest “film producers”, but more importantly drug traffickers, in the industry, and although certainly not a screenplay achievement by any means, feels perfectly made to introduce us to the tone and major characters of the series. What else is there to say about the presentation of the series but “truly professional”, and in that sense, I think the first storyline is kind of incredible in its simplicity. This kind of story works at its best when there’s a great sense of energy in the characters who follow the narrative instead of the other way around, and this combined with the fantastic design work, and oh man did I mention the background illustrations, makes for a very engaging series. And if it turned to shit after this point, I would’ve honestly been fine for how much it has already given.
And although shit might be an overstatement, the direction in which the characters in relation to the narrative are taken is one I am less fond of. After the events of the first five episodes, Edamura starts working as a mechanic which inevitably leads to working for Laurent again, and although there is no drastic shift in tone or structure, there is a clear spotlight put on the inner workings of its individual characters. This may not be an issue on paper, in fact, I think their relevance to the series’ themes on western capitalism and imperialism is another element of it that makes the series stand out amongst other “heist”-type stories. Yet I find myself almost wishing these developments to be dampened. Not necessarily because I think their arcs are insignificant, although they may be so, but because of how they detract from storylines that I would’ve found more engaging without them. Despite the idea of a heist series with a strong theme of neoliberalism and how it manifests in each of its characters being an intriguing one, I think this would’ve felt less grating if the series was set up so. And although I would’ve liked to say that the presentation held up these segments well enough, I think after a while I needed something more than that to feel engaged.
If there’s a silver lining however to this, then it would be that the series finale, although sharing negative qualities with previous storylines, I think serves a narrative that better fits them. Being presented in 9 episodes instead of the usual 5, a more personal take on the genre fits, especially when its role is to say goodbye to its characters. Despite lacking some of the cohesiveness and energy I would’ve liked, there are many moments that I still have on my mind, including scenes in which Laurent is given some very interesting background that I felt fit the story more than I did before. And everything culminating in a striking final episode featuring twists and a reference to the beginning of the series was exactly what I needed, especially after I had been blue-balled to such a level.