Tsukimichi: Moonlit Fantasy – 04 – Town at the End of the World

Moonlight Fantasy really is running on all cylinders this week, giving us a deliriously fun blend of bawdy comedy and righteous violence against bad guys who have no idea who they’re up against. Makoto does very little this week aside from hear a little girl out and try and fail to reign his two overpowered companions, who themselves find it exceedingly difficult to hold back enough to keep their human opponents alive. That this is played for comedy—quite successfully, I might add—is a credit to the writing, direction, and above all voice acting.

Rinon is in a pinch: her big sister, whom she drew a sketch of and who looks just like Makoto’s friend Hasegawa from his world, is missing after setting out to repay her debts against the local unsavory element. In truth, Rinon is being used by those same fiends to rob something they believe to be a spoiled rich kid. Rinon’s love for her sister means she’ll do anything, even spy on and agree to steal from someone who was nothing but kind to her. Rinon’s pure heart and inner conflict serve as both moral lodestar and emotional core of the episode.

Rinon’s Hasegawa-lookalike sister Toa is very much just along for the ride once Tomoe and Mio find her wasting away in a dungeon. Mio soon heals her completely, then opens a hole in the wall of the cell, only to be confronted by the ringleader of the bad guys, a preening pimpernel who is the strongest adventurer in the city. He even manages to block Tomoe and Mio’s first blow, which was their best and most admirable effort of the episode to hold back.

Its also the last such effort, as Mils Ace’s unguarded insulting of their dear young master puts the Dragon Samurai and Spider Madam in a cranky mood. Tomoe dispatches Mils’ entire gang with one solid haymaker then creates an illusion of being choked by a tangle of snakes in the guy’s top henchman. Mio slaps Mils face so rapidly he’s left a grotesquely swollen mess. Annoyed by the narrowness of the hallway, the two then proceed to destroy the entire building.

As Toa stands by helplessly, Tomoe and Mio continue their bickering outside over who did more or was more useful to their master. They decide to keep the competition going by destroying buildings both nearby and far off into the distance, essentially levelling the city. This is after Mils attempted to take Toa hostage, only to be punched to the edge of space, never to be seen again.

The two eventually bring Toa before Rinon for a truly sweet and joyous reunion, accentuated by that time-tested anime custom, the dramatic still with the hand-drawn look. Moonlight Fantasy employs that a lot, and it’s never not great looking, even though they’re just stills. Later, Makoto confirms that Toa looks exactly like Hasegawa but for her hair and eyes. Part of me wishes she’d ended up in this isekai with him, but it’s apparently a coincidence…or is it???

All’s well that ends well…except for the fact that Makoto was trying very hard not to make too large an impact in his first human town. Tomoe and Mio, in their fixation on one-upping one another, deprived him of that desire, and for that, he uses Mio’s own spider silk to tie them up and then shot them into the stratosphere with an exquisitely made Dwarven bow. Amazing what an anime can do when it’s not just people sitting around talking! And to close it out with that absolute banger of an ending theme…*chefs kiss*

Akudama Drive – 06 – Akudama Brawlliant Park

Even though the Boss has mobilized every Executioner to seek and destroy the Akudama, Master gets there first, driven by his need to redeem himself for past failure. An Executioner doesn’t execute, then what is his purpose, right?

He goes all out from the start, sending both Brawler and Cutthroat flying and tossing the police drone at Courier, knocking him and the kids off his bike. Then he slashes Doc across the belly…though I somehow knew she’d be fine.

When Hoodlum finds Brawler in a pile of rubble, he suggests they fall back and give the latter time to recover, but Brawler won’t hear of it. He’s never been in a brawl like this, and isn’t going to back down. His words and wholesome smile make Hoodlum blush…his brother is so cool!

Cutthroat ends up under rubble as well…but cuts his own legs off to continue protecting Swindler…and Swindler alone. Without any regard for the kid brother, he uses him as an (artificial?) human shield, then stabs right through him to wound Master.

Swindler laments Brother’s death, but the Sister tuges at her sleever and tells her to watch: Brother is fine; he has fully regenerative healing. He’s more miffed Cutthroat broke his backpack. Doctor, who stitched herself up, then stiches Cutthroat’s legs back on so he can fight at 100%.

It’s clear from the injuries both the Executioners and Akudama sustain that they’re something more than plain ‘ol human. Only Swindler and Hoodlum, whom we know to be “normal”, escape horrific injuries this week, likely because they wouldn’t recover from them so quickly. Everyone piles onto Couriers bike, then Brawler bursts back onto the scene like an uncaged beast.

The balance of the episode is taken up by their one-on-one decisive battle, which moves from a glitzy arcade to an old amusement park, their fighting and the lightning seemingly giving these abandoned places new life, if only for a short moment.

Here Akudama Drive really shows off its visual flair, taking the ridiculousness of the brawl the extra mile, and all the while both Master and Brawler feeding off their mutual joy over how much goddamn fun they’re both having. Before Master hid his scar with a mask; now he’s grinning like a schoolboy, just like Brawler.

The two continue to wear each other down until it comes down to one last punch that does them both in at the same time. Meanwhile, Apprentice, who had just received a somewhat momemtum-sapping infodump from Boss about why she started pairing up Executioners, arrives on the scene. Boss told her survival rates of Executioners increased dramatically when they had a “reason to live”, i.e. their partner.

But Boss is incorrect that this is what separates the Executioners from the Akudama, because this particular group, despite having been a collection of selfish loners, has also developed a sense of camaraderie, even family. Had they not, they would have surely fallen to Master one by one. Instead, he falls, while the Akudama just lose Brawler—a huge loss, to be sure, but a survivable one.

As Apprentice mourns her Master’s death, Hoodlum mourns his big bro’s…then picks up Master’s lightsaber and rushes an unready Apprentice. When next we see her she’s alive and back in the hospital; both lightsabers by her bed. Hoodlum is also alive in the preview, which means he only took her eye, not her life. But it’s a given Apprentice will seek revenge.

Meanwhile, Swindler drops the nice-girl act (as Doctor had been pleading) to slap Cutthroat across the face and call him “despicable” for valuing her “beautiful” life over that of the kid Brother. The message is clear: she won’t tolerate any more of that. No more cutting through others to protect her! Brother and Sister locate their next destination, which turns out to be the underground network where survivors of the bombing of Old Kansai still reside.

Akudama Drive – 05 – Damn Kids

“Mission Impossible” is accomplished…or is it? Brawler is ready to head back to Kansai to fight Master, who is the first opponent to ever scare him and thus more important than the money. Hacker wants to head the other way to Kanto, and even managed to deactivate his bomb collar. Just as Brawler lives to fight, Hacker lives for excitement, and there’s nothing back in Kansai but boredom.

They’re both right: their job should be complete; the Black Cat didn’t say anything about smuggling two kids back to Kansai. And yet that’s the job. The brother offers to double the reward to ¥2 billion, but as Doctor points out (as perhaps the most intellectually shrewd of the Akudama) it’s not about the money for any of them—except Courier, who is ready to complete whatever mission the kids want.

Still, with no bomb collar the kids can’t force Hacker to keep working for them, and he’s doubtful he’ll ever get as good a chance to see Kanto than now, so he’s going to take it. He gives one of his Haro to Swindler as a parting gift, but she fully intends to return it when they meet again.

Doctor isn’t prepared to go any further until she learns more about these mysterious siblings, which is where Swindler comes in—and I’ll just call her that from now on because she herself seems to have gotten used to it. She accuses Doc of bullying little kids (whose hands she can see are trembling). Brawler and Hoodlum scold Doc, and she backs down.

The brother does at least tell them where they’re headed in Kansai—Expo Park—and when everyone’s tummies start to rumble, he produces a special bento box that creates whatever food someone wants out of thin air. I’d call it magic, but the Kanto and Kyushu Plant are capable of some pretty spiffy tech. Bunny is clear to shark that Kyushu can manufacture anything—meaning it’s not outside the realm of possibility the brother and sister are themselves manufactured.

Both can feel their stomachs are empty but don’t register it as hunger, and when they eat some of Swindler’s takoyaki they can’t tell if it’s good or not, just that it makes their bellies warm. It’s fun to learn of each Akudama’s favorite food (Brawler, meat; Hoodlum ramen, then onigiri; Doctor, wine, bread and cheese; Cutthroat, marshmallows), and that Courier and Swindler share a love of takoyaki. 

With a considerable and likely intentional pause in the action this week, we get to watch these colorful personalities mingle and clash. Doc for one believes Swindler is putting on an “innocent act” that she’s not buying. And hey, it remains to be seen if Swindler really is hiding something from us as well as her comrades.

We also learn more about the Executioner Division structure, with a Boss (named “Boss”) answering to Kanto in the form of three Noh masks atop a traditional shrine-like structure. They aren’t just elite cops, but Kanto’s muscle in Kansai and a form of society control. Akudama, after all are the only people from Kansai who could threaten Kanto’s hegemony.

Boss is given an ultimatum to find and destroy the seven Akudama who raided the Shinkansen at all costs, but the hospitalized Master and Apprentice are suspended indefinitely for twice failing in their mission—something virtually unheard of up to this point.

Meanwhile, in a nice moment between Swindler and Courier as the skies clear and reveal a gorgeous sunset, she tries to give him back his dropped ¥500 piece, which she almost slips up by saying it’s what “got her in this mess.”

The Executioners’ Boss gives a rousing speech to all members, including trainees, to find and eliminate the seven Akudama, and their faces pop up all over town video boards. Frankly, while Boss talks about law, order, and justice, there are more than generous hints of fascism and hyper-conformity in both her rhetoric and the division’s uniforms.

Apprentice is frustrated she and her Master can’t take responsibility for their failures by participating, only to find that Master has given her the slip. The next we see him he’s already located the Akudama, who attempted to clandestinely enter Kansai through the drainage and sewage network. They failed, but is the Master and a single security drone really enough against the six Akudama—even if the little sister doesn’t provide defense via her flute shield? We’ll find out.

Not every episode is a bullet train heist, nor should it be, nor would I want it to be. This was just the kind of follow-up I wanted, using the calm between storms to give a little more depth and seasoning to the players and their relationships.

Whether Swindler is just an ordinary girl in over head or secretly and/or unconsciously the most powerful of all of them (due in large part to her ability to “move hearts”), the true nature of the siblings, and the all-hands manhunt add up to plenty of juicy material for the remaining episodes.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Akudama Drive – 04 – The Kickass Express

As expected once the Shinkansen took off from Kansai Station, the action and difficulty level of the heist kicks into a higher gear. The train is hurtling towards an “Ultimate Quarantine Zone”, and if that doesn’t kill them, the sweep that eliminates all organic material before the Kanto gate certainly will. Oh, and the Master and Pupil have hopped aboard.

With so many different ways to die, the shrinking of the setting to a long but relatively narrow tube makes for some excellent action set pieces. Without a lot of space for lateral movement, there’s a lot of people punching, kicking, or tossing their opponents across the length of a carriage.

Brawler and Cutthroat fight Master and Pupil with Doctor offering occasional support and Hoodlum, um, cheering on his kyoudai. Ordinary Person and Black Cat watch Hacker’s back as he hacks one lock after another to reach the next carriage. Each lock gets more complex, so it feels like a game for him.

Indeed, everyone seems to take the unexpected setbacks and increased difficulty level in stride, thriving off the increased challenges. That’s with the exception of the lazy and childish Cutthroat, who just wants to see blood, but even Master can’t help but be impressed by his natural fighting skills.

Thanks to the weekly Bunny & Shark informational segments, we learn more about how and why the Shinkansen operates, while Hacker and Ordina’s progress reveals passenger carriages, meaning the train either used to transport people to and from Kanto, or once did and no longer does. After the mostly metal and mechanical freight carriages, the lavishly-appointed, wood-paneled carriages are a lovely visual change of pace.

Once Courier finally gets to his bike, he points its railgun forward to destroy the defense drones, then points it back at the Executioners, slicing their carriage off from the front of the train. This exposes everyone to the Zone briefly, but Doctor uses a quick-solidifying foam to seal the breach. Like last week, some members are more important roles than others, but everyone is needed and everyone contributes, with both actions and wry banter.

They finally reach the front carriage, which has an appropriate “final stage” aesthetic with its clean off-white bulkheads. Hacker breaks through all the locks he can, but the final one requires a seal he doesn’t have. That’s when the Black Cat disintegrates, revealing it was the seal all along. Ordina uses it to open the vault…where they find a young brother and sister in military uniforms.

The sister immediately plays a note on a flute which stops the train and puts up a protective shield. The brother speaks with the same voice as the cat’s (Maaya Uchida), while the sister is voiced by Ichinose Kana. So, Mission Accomplished—everyone’s super-rich, right? Seems that way; I don’t see the siblings double-crossing their own rescue team.

The question is, why were two human children being transported to Kanto like cargo? As the Black Cat implied with an earlier comment, Kanto is far from the wonderful Utopia Hacker believed it to be. Will our gang head back to Kansai for now, or will we get a glimpse of the not-so-perfect-after-all other side?

Akudama Drive – 03 – Ocean’s Seven

As the Black Cat continues to describe the plan to infiltrate Kansai Station, the Ordinary Person tries not to stand out too much, lest her Swindler persona be exposed as a fraud. She later admits alone (with the gorgeous skyline as a backdrop) she’s strayed quite far into the world of criminals, but as Courier tells her, he does what he does because it’s “where he belongs.”

Ordinary Girl probably hadn’t led a particularly interesting life up until now, and even though these are all insane criminals, they’ve collectively been nice enough to make her feel like she belongs too. It’s nothing groundbreaking, characterization-wise, but Kurosawa Tomoyo really brings a lot of brightness and personality to “Ordina.”

This week we watch the gang infiltrate the station, which earns the episode the title “Mission: Impossible” for good reason: this motley crew of crazy people will have to work together, and well, in order to have a chance at success. Not only that, Ordina plays a key role at several points in the episode. She’s no passive observer.

Once the split group reaches the two elevators, they rely on precise countdowns to time the pressing of two switches on two levels at the exact same time. The switches are protected by glass-like forcefields, which are defeated in different ways.

Brawler simply destroys the unshielded supports for the fields, while Cutthroat pierces through them one by one. Ordina has to borrow Hacker’s drone to deliver a decisive fastball into the line of suspended blades so the one at the front hits the switch just as Hoodlum’s temple hits the other.

Once they reach the Shinkansen platform, they activate an EMP provided by Black Cat, knocking out power for the entire city, but also Hacker’s connection. With Hacker unable to increase the allowed weight of the cargo to permit it to pass through the train’s plasma field, the only person lighter than him—Ordina—has to take his place in the cargo crate.

She makes it inside without incident and drops the field just in time to allow Courier to speed in on his bike; then everyone else boards right before the train’s emergency start kicks in. Again, the train actually moving wasn’t part of the plan, but it will have to be now. There’s no going back from this point.

While this episode only covers the first half of the Shinkansen heist, I’m glad it slowed things down so we could not only watch the details of the infiltration go down, but also have more fun interactions between the characters. Both the Kansai station and the music the heist is set to elevate the sense of occasion and importance to the mission, which is about to kick into a higher gear with next week’s “Speed”.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Akudama Drive – 02 – 1.5 Meters for a Billion

With all the players introduced, the robotic Black Cat reveals she’s the mastermind who had them all collared as an insurance policy. The mission to rescue Cutthroat was a test they all passed. Unfortunately for the lower-level Akudama Hoodlum and non-Akudama Ordinary Girl, the fact they’re still alive and played a role means they could prove useful, so they’re not allowed to walk away.

The cat suggests a change of venue to discuss their next job, which will pay a cool billion (100 million is already in everyone’s accounts, indicating the cat isn’t altogether untrustworthy. Brawler secures them some transport by hijacking a bus (all of which fly here) and Hacker handles the piloting. Their trip across town is just the latest in a nearly constant feast for the eyes. There’s too much detail to catch it all in one viewing.

The airbus trip also allows our colorful characters to interact a bit. Hoodlum and Brawler become fast friends, Courier and Doctor don’t, and Cutthroat is enamored of Ordinary Girl’s pink eyes, hair highlights, and clothes. Though pink isn’t as good as (blood) red, and his fixation on that color leads him to hit all the red buttons on the bus, resulting in the activation of its emergency afterburners.

After a quick history lesson with stick puppets about Kanto and Kansai (the former bombed and then totally rebuilt the latter), the gang emerges from the airbus, which has crashed into the upper level of a seven-star hotel. After disposing of all the human and robotic guards, they all gather in a suite so the cat can brief them on their next mission.

They are to infiltrate the Shinkansen, the only way to travel to Kanto from Kansai, and revered by most of the latter’s inhabitants as a “sacred entity”. There’s a 1.5-meter vault containing cargo the cat wants, but won’t disclose exactly what that cargo is. A successful attack of the Shinkansen has never been accomplished, but everyone gets $9 million if they can pull it off.

Their briefing is interrupted by the arrival of a pair of Executioners: a male Master and female Pupil who have a License to Kill Akudama. The Pupil takes the lead and goes after Brawler, and the suite’s trippy mood lighting is accidentally activated, making their brawl even more cool and stylish. Pupil proves at least an equal fighter to Brawler, and cuts Doctor’s throat, while Hacker and the cat escape.

Before Pupil or Master can determine why an Ordinary Person with no criminal record and a four-year Hoodlum are hanging out with a bunch of elite Akudama, Courier remotely calls in his bike, which flies up to the suite, crashes through the window, and fires its railgun at the Executioners. In the ensuing explosion, the Girl and Akudama get away, and Master and Pupil vow to get them next time.

We end up in an abandoned warehouse—what was to be the original site of the briefing before Cutthroat caused a detour to the hotel. Everyone is fine, even Doctor, who stitched up her own throat. All that’s left is to await the Shinkansen’s next stop in Kansai. They’ll only have twenty minutes until it starts back up for Kanto, so they should at least go in with a plan…even if the more chaotic members of the gang inevitably mess that plan up.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Akudama Drive – 01 (First Impressions) – Too Much is Not Enough

From its opening moments when it presents a stark futuristic urban landscape a la Blade Runner 2049, then the camera dives into an impossibly lively and kinetic future cityscape, I knew we’d be in for a lush eyefeast. The gaudy visuals are always on the cusp of causing sensory overload, but the direction wisely finds “rest spots”, such as when the camera angles stay level at an alleyway takoyaki stand.

It’s there where our unnamed female protagonist is grabbing a bite to eat, and the course of her night—and the rest of her life—is suddenly changed forever, all thanks to a ¥500 piece dropped by a gray taciturn young man on a purple Akira superbike. He refuses the coin from the girl, saying “dropped change is bad luck”. After what happens to the girl, I really can’t dispute that!

We learn Mr.Poutybike is really Courier, whose bike is equipped with omni-directional mobility gear to essentially Spider-Man his way over and through Kansai’s endless labyrinth of concrete canyons. We also meet Brawler creating an impressive, ever-growing pile of busted-up police bots; Hacker, hacking into the Kansai Central Bank; and sultry sadist Doctor performing an impromptu heart bypass in public transit airship.

These four super-cool, ultra-colorful characters (none of them named; their jobs are their names) each have centuries worth of estimated sentences for their myriad crimes. After they show off their stuff, each receives a mysterious text for a new job: Whomever of them rescues the murderer Cutthroat from his public execution later that night will be rewarded a cool ¥100 million.

The four criminals, designated S-Class Akudama, converge on Kansai Police HQ…where our Ordinary Girl ended up after being arrested for not paying for her takoyaki. The fact she didn’t pay when she had the ¥500 coin suggests to a police bot that she may be a Swindler. When Brawler starts throwing bots through windows, the Girl is caught in the middle of the fray.

When she spots a black cat—the same one she saved while almost getting hit by a car earlier—she chases after it and protects it, because between those selfless acts and not feeling right spending Courier’s ¥500, Ordinary Girl is a good person—maybe the only good person in this whole insane city!

That, however, doesn’t save her from the bad luck of picking up that dropped coin, which puts her literally in the crossfire of all four Akudama, who had been busy fighting each other until she presented them with a mutual target to kill. She manages to save herself (for the moment) by lying about being an Akudama like them named Swindler, so-called because she even tricked the computer system.

Before they start pressing her for proof, a giant police robot emerges from the elevator, missiles firing. Cutthroat was only a second or two from being beheaded by guillotine when the other four Akudama, the megabot, and Ordinary Girl all spill out into the public execution arena, much to the police cheif’s chagrin. They also end up destroying part of the underground prison, freeing, among others, the D-Class Akudama Hoodlum.

Courier leads the attack on the megabot, winding his bike around the giant overhead scoreboard display, sending it plummeting on top of everyone else. At first Ordinary Girl can just watch gobsmacked as all this chaos happens around her with the cat in her arms, but when she spots Courier about to be killed by the bot, she remembers her duty to get him back his coin.

She distracts the bot by pointing out Hoodlum, giving Courier enough time to activate his bike’s built-in railgun (but notably not activated with the coin—a missed opportunity to be sure). The bot is destroyed, the cops are in disarray, and all the Akudama are still breathing. Courier refuses to thank the Girl for helping him. Dick!

But how long will each of them be breathing? When Cutthroat emerges free from his binds and is given the briefcase by Courier, he immediately fits its contents (necklaces) on himself, the Akudama, and the Girl, and a guard. When the the guard tries to pry it off his head explodes, indicating the chokers are bombs. Then the theretofore silent cat finally speaks up—apparently the mastermind of this job and the scenario in which the criminals and Ordinary Girl find themselves.

You may not find a more indulgently EXTRA show than Akudama Drive (AKA “A.D.D.”) this Fall, and its first episode surpasses even K in pure delicious eye candy. I knew going in this had the same director as Persona, the character designer of Danganronpa, and Railgun’s composer.

Kurosawa Tomoyo (Sound! Euphonium’s Kumiko, Amaburi’s Sylphy) does a tremendous job infusing Ordinary Girl with a crisp, bright, expressive voice. So there’s a ton of talent here. One of my favorite unnecessary-but-awesome flexes are the transitions between parts of the city in which the different layers of the landscape are fitted together like Tetris pieces.

One thing that may turn some off besides the visuals that border on too cool and trying too hard: the fact there’s no attempt to give dimension to any of these characters, who basically start and end at their names and are embellished with their individual style and methods. No amount of intricate spinning signs can distract from the fact there’s not much below the surface.

That said, I found Ordinary Girl an effective and sympathetic audience surrogate, and whatever deadly game into which she’s stumbled backwards is one I can’t wait to watch unfold…even if it may be best to switch off the ol’ brain and enjoy the empty neon calorie airship ride.

Rating: 4/5

Great Pretender – 07 – Skybrawl

Team Confidence heads to Singapore, where Makoto sees the Ibrahim brothers in action for the first time. While Clark plays the flashy playboy, Sam is the ruthless wheeler-dealer. The pair bought up the struggling race and have since made it a fixed affair a la WWE—all the winners and losers are chosen ahead of time.

Watching racing planes swoop over around and through Singapore’s futuristic skyline is fun, but the pulse-heightening action is once again hurt by a lot of obvious CGI and harshly posterized photo-based scenery. It’s an aesthetic that works sometimes, but often comes off as cheap.

The night after prelims, in which Abby just manages to qualify for the race by the skin of her teeth, she and Cynthia to the brothers at the rooftop pool of the iconic Marina Bay Sands. While Abby skinny dips and plays hard to get with the already-smitten Clark, Sam proves a more stoic nut to crack, but Cynthia seemingly convinces him that she’s enough of a rising star to promote—and ensure she’ll win the next race.

While we often see Clark carousing with ladies, this is still a PG-13-equivalent anime, so it call comes of as pretty chaste, especially when he doesn’t push for a more intimate rendezvous with Abby. She retires early for the night, but probably doesn’t get much sleep, as ever since she started flying she’s been getting flashbacks from her Dark Past.

The next day, Sam doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain, and the veteran pilot steals the lead from Abby. When Cynthia gently protests, Sam drops any semblance of a nice guy act and tells her he neither promised nor owes Cynthia a damn thing, and proceeds to go into a bitter misogynist rant that you know he’ll pay for later. Abby has another flashback in the cockpit, but Makoto is able to snap her out of it via radio headset, and she ekes out a photo-finish victory.

From what I gather, Abby was at one point an award-winning ballerina whose life was suddenly turned upside down. At some point she became separated from her parents, ended up in a terrorists training facility, and got caught in a fierce battle where her comrades were cut to ribbons. When Makoto asks why Abby is in the con artist business at all, Laurent’s answer is simple and devastating: Abby is trying to find the right way to die.

We’ve seen her flashbacks and heard a bit about her from Laurent, but the fact remains Abby’s said very little herself—either about herself or anything else—in the past seven episodes. Will Makoto, con man with a conscience, seek to talk her out of her apparent death wish? Will Abby ever be in the mood to listen? All I know is, they’d better inspect her plane thoroughly for sabotage before her race against Clark.

Great Pretender – 06 – Earning His Wings

After an enticing stinger in which a terrified Makoto is along for the ride in a plane piloted by a crazed-looking Abby—which then blows up—we rewind a bit to see Makoto serving the remainder of his sentence at a Japanese penitentiary. The warden notices he’s good with a wrench, and decides to put in a good word for him with Nakanoshima, a grizzled old mechanic who runs a successful garage.

Makoto’s prison sentence really has changed his perspective on things. He no longer believes it’s justified to scam people, whether they deserve it or not. He wants to pay his debt to society and live life on the straight and narrow, rejecting any further collaborations with Laurent’s crew. Of course, that stinger of him in a plane with Abby indicates he will ultimately fail.

From there, we shift to a woman being fired by her boss for refusing his advances, and that same boss meeting Cynthia (AKA “Jennifer”) at a bar in Las Vegas. Jen clues the man in on unlicensed underground fights where the real money can be made, and even spots him cash to wager.

She tells him to put the money on Abby, who ends up winning despite her opponent being twice her size. Jen tells the businessman the outcome of the fight—and subsequent fights—was rigged so Abby would win, getting him to bet more and more of his own cash on a sure thing, night after night.

Meanwhile, far from his past con man life, Makoto works his ass off for two months, learning his way around his boss Nakanoshima’s true passion, propeller planes. Eventually Nakanoshima informs him of a racing team that needs a mechanic, encouraging him to “leave the nest.”

This mention of a racing team, along with the abrupt shift to working on planes, should have tipped Makoto off in some way, but perhaps his con man instincts were dulled by prison and his focus on “breaking good”.

As for Mr. Businessman, he ends up withdrawing all of his liquid assets and wagering them on another Abby victory. Only this time, Abby doesn’t win…though after taking a couple of blows to the head, she tries her damnedest not to lose, going into MMA punishment machine mode against her hulking opponent.

Ultimately she loses, as there are no rules to break to achieve victory. Businessman loses everything, and in a very Robin Hood move, Cynthia ends up delivering his duffel of cash to the very woman he fired. She may be a ruthless con artist, but she still has a sense of honor, and isn’t above pulling off jobs to right injustices.

Shortly thereafter (and once Abby’s battle damage heals) is when Makoto finds himself on an island that gives him quite a bit of deja vu, and before he knows it he’s being introduced to the plane racing team for whom he’ll serve as mechanic: Cynthia, Abby, and Laurent. They paid

The next scam involves a race in Singapore, where they’ll work to take everything a pair of oil magnate heirs for everything they have—two hundred million dollars, or double what they made in the LA job. Makoto wants nothing to do with them or any more crimes, so Laurent insists he’ll be on the level as a mechanic, and not be involved in anything else.

Abby, who will apparently be the team’s pilot, goes up with Makoto in a plan he himself serviced, returning us to the events of the stinger. That’s when we learn Laurent and Cynthia paid Nakanoshima to train Makoto just enough to pass as a plane mechanic, but obviously there’s only so much he can learn in two months, right?

Even so, the plane Abby and Makoto are in blows up (they’re able to safely eject) not because Makoto didn’t service it correctly, but because Laurent sabotaged it, in order to convince Makoto that he’s not a mechanic, but a con man.

I’ll give Great Pretender credit: it closed the book on the LA job before it got stale and then immediately shifted gears to something entirely new, fresh and exciting, with ever higher stakes and moral implications in store for Makoto. Just when he thought he was out…

Great Pretender – 05 – Cooking Up Something Good

Turns out Dickens wants Salazar in cuffs, so Makoto’s efforts to keep him free to care for his son goes nowhere, and Makoto has no choice but to cooperate lest he end up in prison himself. So as Eddie, Laurent, Abby, and a camera watch closely, Makoto cooks up his very first batch of Sakura Magic, a drug that doesn’t really exist.

Having watched sufficient instructional videos, Makoto is able to pull it off, though the candy is a little rough-looking. Abby is ready to taste-test and offer another performance, but first Eddie presents Laurent with the ten million dollars in ten suitcases, and Agent Dickens’ troops bust in, automatic weapons drawn.

Dickens makes no effort to conceal the fact that Makoto was her mole. She also promised no one would get killed in the raid, but that’s before an enraged Abby suddenly pulls a gun on the cops. Laurent dives to shield her, but the two end up riddled with bullets and die in a puddle of blood on the floor, to Makoto’s absolute shock. Naturally, I immediately questioned whether they had actually been killed, or if this was simply a larger con in play.

If it is, Makoto goes off script and takes Dickens hostage, forcing the cops to back off. He urges Salazar to escape, but in the confusion Eddie sneaks off and overloads the pressure on a tank, blowing up the entire lab. Makoto ends up under a wounded Salazar, and ends up chasing a hobbled Eddie. Eddie gets the jump on him and starts beating him with a traffic cone before Salazar, okay after all, punches him out.

That’s when things get weird. Dickens conducts an interrogation that ends with her accepting a bribe of 100 million dollars, again to Makoto’s shock. This cleans Eddie out of his international assets, but he’s free to leave and make it all right back. Naturally, Makoto is disgusted with Dickens’ shady conduct, but before he can protest too much he’s knocked out.

When he comes to, he learns what I expected: Laurent and Abby were fine, and Dickens and her team were fellow con artists, part of a much larger scheme to take Eddie for all he’s worth. “Dickens”, who really goes by Cynthia, hosts a huge celebration for the whole team on her private island, and everyone receives a cut in the numerous millions of dollars.

It’s understandably quite the surreal experience for Makoto. Despite the predictability of the outcome, Makoto being in the dark for the majority of the long con nevertheless lent an air of suspense, which helped the proceedings feel like more than the sum of their elemental parts. When people start going their separate ways but Laurent offers to take him under his wing, Makoto asks them to wait three or four years for him to get his affairs in order.

They agree, and Makoto returns to Japan. But just as soon as he arrives, he dumps his sack of American cash on the front desk of the nearest police station, confesses to having conned people out of it, and indicating his wish to pay back those he scammed. Looks like he’s going for a clean slate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those years he told Laurent to wait would be spent behind bars (again). In any case, the LA designer drug adventure comes to a satisfying conclusion.

Great Pretender – 04 – The Candyman Can’t

Let’s start with the basics: Makoto has no idea how to cook drugs, yet Eddie is now spending millions to renovate a lab where he’ll be…cooking drugs. Laurent (through Abby, who sneaks into Salazar’s house in the night) provides video lessons in how to cook.

It’s pretty much the best he can do; the rest is a result of the various rash choices Makoto made that got him so deep into this mess. But it still seems rather unlikely Makoto would be able to learn how to make even a marginally passable product after a week of watching videos.

In the week the renovations will take, Eddie lets Makoto enjoy the sights of L.A., provided his bodyguard Salazar is always around. When Makoto learns that Salazar’s wife is dead and he only sees his son on Sundays, he insists on Salazar keeping to that schedule with his kid.

The three have a lot of fun together; the son knows his samurai, and also considers a bodyguard to be a much cooler job than cops or FBI. If he knows what his dad truly did for a living beyond bodyguarding, he’s not talking about it. Makoto wonders if it’s genuine ignorance or simply putting on a brave face.

During a bathroom break, Makoto is accosted by Anderson, who then introduces him to Dickens, who offers Makoto a deal: if he serves as their mole and helps them apprehend both Laurent and Cassano, he’ll be sent back to Japan without any jail time.

It’s probably as generous an offer as he’ll get from law enforcement, though it certainly doesn’t ensure his safety; Eddie’s reach, even outside of prison, is likely vast. Not to mention the last time he tried to pull one on Laurent and Abby, he ended up hanging out to dry on the Hollywood sign.

At a big lavish “sushi party” at Eddie’s celebrating the completion of the lab renovations, Eddie formally welcomes Makoto into his “family”, while also announcing he’s found a rat. It turns out to be a random guy who gets the bat to the balls.

This, despite the fact Makoto didn’t notice a video camera in the teddy in his room until he’d already had a couple meetings with Abby. The thing is, Salazar doesn’t care what scam Makoto, Abby, and Laurent are pulling on his boss. His job is to protect Eddie’s personal safety, not his money.

Salazar’s situation hits home for Makoto. He grew up thinking his dad was a cool, moral lawyer protecting the rights of the downtrodden. He’d later learn, the same time as his mother, on TV, that their father and husband was scamming them all along, and was really the linchpin of a despicable international child trafficking operation.

Makoto also wants Salazar’s dream of getting his kid in college to come true. Like Makoto himself, his son is an innocent who doesn’t deserve to have his life destroyed—or the stigma attached to his name by his criminal dad. So Makoto puts on the glasses with the built-in two-way bug, and agrees to assist Dickens—but only if they leave Salazar out of it.

Great Pretender – 03 – Burrowing Deeper

Makoto manages to win Eddie Cassano over by first spending the night watching his movies at a motel, then intentionally getting caught by Eddie’s men. Once he’s before Eddie himself, he flatters him by declaring his love for his movies—which he considers art rather than RedLetterMedia fodder—and likens it to his drugs, which are like precious children to him.

Eddie will pay $10 million not only for an exclusive license for Sakura Magic, but all of Makoto’s lab notes on the formula, enabling any chemist to make it themselves. Still, Eddie wisely withholds the exchange of cash until his lawyers have been to Makoto’s lab in Japan. Thankfully Makoto’s pals are there just in time to greet them and corroborate Makoto’s story.

However, it’s still too risky to hand over millions in cash at Eddie’s house, which is under LAPD surveillance, while Eddie himself has been hounded by Chief Inspector Anderson for over a decade. They try to give Anderson the slip with a false limo, but Anderson sends a decoy tail after it and chases Eddie’s shitty Malibu instead. A pretty nifty car chase ensues, though it’s marred somewhat by the clunky CGI car models.

Anderson turns out to be on Eddie’s payroll, and simply had to make it look good for both his team and the higher-ups. Eddie then shows Makoto, Laurent, and Abby to one of his top drug labs, presents Makoto with everything he needs, and asks him to whip up a batch of Sakura Magic right then and there.

Makoto never designed for his researcher story to endure under this level of scrutiny, and he’s able to save his skin for the time being by dismissing the lab as too filthy to work in. In response to this, Eddie vows to completely renovate the lab to Makoto’s exact specs. Each time he squirrels out of trouble the lie he uses ends up burrowing himself deeper into this increasingly lethal situation.

Pretty soon he’ll be out of moves, but that may not end up mattering. That’s because Anderson’s case has been suddenly taken over by infamous mob-buster FBI SA Paula Dickins. However, she’s not even after Cassano, but Laurent Tierry & Co., purveyors of international fraud. Getting arrested by the feds is far from ideal, but it’s probably better than whatever Eddie will do to Makoto when he finds out he’s being scammed.

Great Pretender – 02 – Sins of the Father

When Abby cuts Makoto down from the HOLLYWOOD sign, he falls quite a ways and gets knocked out, which is the perfect opportunity to get into his backstory. “Edamame” the con man used to be clean as a whistle, you see. All he wanted to do was make his bedridden mom proud, but he was hired by a company that turned out to be perpetrating consumer fraud. He just thought they were selling a quality health tea product.

The fuzz raid the office and he’s arrested with everyone else. No one believes he was unaware that a crime was being committed, thanks to the ages-old adage “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. Because his father was a convicted criminal, he’s suspected of simply following in ol’ dad’s footsteps. He goes away for eighteen months and his mom passes away. But since everyone in the world assumes the worst of him, the only thing to do is lean into the skid.

The newly conscious Makoto has a luxurious seaside lunch as Laurent explains that after spreading rumors of a hot new drug, Eddie Cassano wanted to meet the Japanese researcher who designed it. He hired the water filter lady he scammed as well as Kudou and his old crew to basically put Makoto through his con artist paces, and he passed with flying colors. He also knows Makoto’s past, and considers it an added bonus that beneath the hardened con man one is an innocent, pure-hearted mama’s boy.

That night, Laurent leaves Makoto at his swanky pad with Abby to keep an eye on him. Convinced that the plan will go south and they’ll all be killed, Makoto tries to sneak out, but Abby puts him in a bodylock. Despite this, Makoto is able to pick a bent gold medal from her pocket. She ultimately lets him go, believing him useless as long as he doesn’t want to be there, and warning him Cassano’s men will be watching both him and the airport.

Makoto ends up getting one over on both Abby and Laurent, as they assume they’ve lost him and have to start over at square one, only for Cassano to tell them Makoto’s already there and closed the deal for double the original price. It stung when Laurent said there were no good con artists in Japan, especially when he believes Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who rose from a peasant background to unify the country, to be the greatest con artist in history.

I’m still not a fan of the posterized photo-based backgrounds, but no one can accuse this show of not being colorful enough; that poppy pink-and-yellow lunch was pure Vice City. While neither Makoto’s past nor the trio’s present mission is nothing original, it still manages to be pleasantly diverting.