In real life, con games are pathetic, grubby affairs, doubly so if you're the one swindled. In the movies, they're derring-do personified. There's an exhilaration in watching guys who think they're the smartest ones in the room get taken by the ones who know they're the smartest ones in the room. The Great Pretender milks that exhilaration, but it's chiefly about a guy stuck between two poles: the urge to do the right thing, and the urge to get away with everything. Sometimes, he gets to do both.
Welcome to one of my weaknesses: stories about conmen and con games. The conman here is Makoto Edamura, a broad-smiling twenty-something, and with his older partner Kudō, he's able to pull of elaborate long cons like selling a woman on a costly water filtration system she doesn't need. Crime was, for him, a fallback: his first job out of college (to Kudō, no less) turned out to be a front for a fradulent scheme, and with a criminal conviction on his record he couldn't find legitimate work. He does this because the world won't let him do anything else — especially not follow in the footsteps of his crusading lawyer father.
Then one day Kudō and Makoto try to pull a fast one on a French tourist, only to have it all go Pete Tong. And when Makoto tries to flee the country, he ends up right back in the company of said tourist. This suave blond fellow calls himself Laurent Thierry, but who knows if that's his real name — he's a conman himself, and he's been working on a scheme that requires someone with Highly Specific Skills. Turns out the whole stunt that forced Makoto to flee for sunny L.A. was also partly Kudō's doing: he's in on it, too. In fact, he was the one who scouted Makoto in the first place.
Laurent's scheme: Rip off Eddie Cassano, a would-be movie producer whose real job is drug kingpin. His plan is to have Makoto pose as a brilliant young drug chemist from Japan, creator of a wicked new high called "Sakura Magic". They even have an insider to help them sell Cassano on the whole deal — Abbie Jones, an athletic and sullen young woman who would just as soon break Makoto's face than accept his help. Makoto's first response to all this is to scream bloody murder and try to flee, but it's probably less dangerous for him to try and fulfill his role in the scam (replete with high-tech assistance by way of things like glasses with radios in them) than to take his chances on the street. Doubly so after a tough-as-a-box-of-roofing-nails FBI agent boxes Laurent and the others in as a way to finger Cassano.
Houses of games
Read no further if you want to be surprised, because how the above setup is transformed into the material for the rest of the series is one of its big pleasures. Turns out the FBI agent is Cynthia Moore, one of Laurent's long-time associates; the whole FBI side of things was itself part of the con. And with Cassano fleeced good and proper, Laurent gives Makoto a chance to be part of the crew for keeps. Their deal is simple: they look for people who deserve to get burned to the ground when the rest of the world won't touch them, and exploit the greed and avarice of their victims. Makoto isn't biting: he rather move back to Japan now that the heat's blown over (actually, there was never any heat to begin with ... ), make restitution for his crimes, and do something legitimate with his life.
But months later, after he's found good work as an airplane mechanic, Laurent and the crew come sniffing back around for him. Turns out there's a Middle Eastern prince who runs air races and who needs taking down a few pegs, and so — much to his own chagrin — back in Makoto goes. Only this time, it's Abby who has to be the faker, with some support from Makoto, and that ends up exposing a brutal piece of Abby's past that she's been sitting on. Worse, she might end up using her participation in the race to get revenge she's been nursing for years, something that might jeopardize the whole operation. It falls to Makoto to not only make the scam come off properly, but to keep it from exploding in everyone's faces.
Roles shift yet again for a third plotline, where the crew enlists an old flame of Cynthia's, a failed painter, to forge a a copy of a masterpiece as a way to bring down an (in)famous art appraiser. This time it falls to Makoto to help the man rediscover his mojo, but he's not simply suffering from painter's block. He created other forgeries that were palmed off as the real thing by their target, and went into debt to keep them off the market. Their job is now to bring one man low and redeem another — assuming, that is, their target actually takes the bait.
It's all the best kind of fake
All this has even more complexity to it than I've related here, but The Great Pretender is masterful at giving the audience just enough thread to not get lost in its labyrinth — e.g., towards the ends of key episodes, there's flash inserts that provide context as to how the apparently impossible just took place. It also knows the real story is not in whether or not they get away with any of it, but what it means to them. The opening arc is about Makoto getting a taste of something too big even for him, and realizing there are very few occasions he can't rise to. Part two is Abby's story: it ends wit Makoto helping put a smile on her face, even if how he does that and the way we get there is nothing like what we signed up for (in a good way). And so on. The furniture of the plot matters less than the feng shui of its deployment — and the constant theme of Makoto trying to be all things to all people, and sometimes, to his own amazement, succeeding.
Nothing says an anime has to take place in a fantasy world to be visually arresting. The Great Pretender is clearly set in our here-and-now, but it's realized with blazing colors and a wonderfully angular visual style — a close cousin to the "low-poly" look Studio TRIGGER used for Promare. The L.A. we see in the show isn't L.A. as it actually exists, anymore than most anime is about Tokyo (or Japan) as it actually exists. It's more of a challenge, and more of a payoff, to transform the world we all know and are familiar with, to make what's outside our front doors fantastic, than to come up with something fantastic entirely from whole cloth (and thus disconnected from our experience). It's doubly appropriate this happens in a show about a crew of scammers who concoct and dispense reality as they see fit.
One of the wisest things anime can do as an art form is reach out to beyond itself for influences. Anime that's just influenced by the most recent generation of whatever was on TV is correspondingly shallow and redundant. The Great Pretender reaches out further than that, towards things like the sprightly rip-off-the-rip-offs comedies of the 1980s and 1990s (Ruthless People, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), and brings back a whole lot more than you'd expect.