The story of the Great Pretender is one of a good person trying desperately to be a bad guy in a world where everyone is out for themselves. Makoto Edamura is a character who realized very early on that the world will not always give you a handout or treat you the way that you deserve to be treated. You can either accept that reality and make the most of it, or you can decide to take as much away from the world as it’s taken from you. Our young man very much was pushed to become the latter but he might’ve finally met his match by taking a step outside of Japan and realizing just how cutthroat that world truly is.
The beginning of this volume does a good job of establishing that our main character isn’t some kind of idiot that just stumbled his way into the life of being a con artist. He is very street smart and quick on the up and up. This is important because as he gets dragged around by the pace of other characters, we see how much more he still has to learn as a practical con artist while effectively bringing into question where he is at morally. Even when he makes mistakes and clearly gets in over his head, that’s more born from a place of hubris and pride than it is out of any lack of skill, which surprisingly helps lend credibility to the character as he tries to outsmart situations and makes things worse for himself. The pacing feels effectively engaging and shows that any raised stakes regarding any cons or changes in plans are a direct result of our characters’ actions.
That being said, we only really get a solid handle on one other character in this first volume, and that is the more mischievous Laurent who is the one pulling the curtain back for Makoto as he drags him into bigger and crazier schemes. Laurent’s gentle, laid-back exterior contrasts well with Makoto’s more serious straightforwardness, but the panel layout and writing make it very clear that he is used to being in control of overly punishing situations. He definitely feels more like a “just roll with it” type of personality, but there are hints that he knows more about this cruel world than he lets on. Despite that, I do appreciate the moments where he does lose control and hope there are more instances in future volumes where we see how he reacts to other stressful situations. Unfortunately this does come at the cost of other characters not being given as much to do. There are hints of deeper characterization that could be set up in the future but for now, other characters act more as totems for this cutthroat world than fully realized characters of their own.
Still though, despite being a more grounded setting, things are kept surprisingly varied. Having most of the volume take place outside of Japan is reflected in the character design, where it’s clear that many of these characters aren’t native to just one region. There are some great facial expressions that strike a good balance between over-the-top cartoony and more stern angular expressions. Panel layout flows effectively from top to bottom with plenty of background effects like speed lines in order to help accentuate those aforementioned character expressions. Again, given the more realistic setting, it’s nice to see that the artist leaning into more exaggerated layouts and forms of expression in order to communicate the extreme emotions that the protagonist in particular is going through. I do wish that the shading of the characters properly reflected some of their skin tones that are displayed on the cover of the volume. As it stands now, strictly going off of the manga, it’s hard to tell what characters are supposed to be tan and which characters aren’t.
Overall the first volume of Great Pretender feels like it hits all the right notes. It has good, established characterization and a fun premise that might shape up to be a very engaging arc. The world is kept fairly realistic and some of the scams displayed are effective in their simplicity. There is a natural progression to the stakes that in no way feels frustrating or inconsistent. If you’re looking for something with a bit of an edge then I definitely don’t think you’ll go wrong with picking this up.