I’ve heard about the widely popular graphic novel by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldismo called ‘Trese’ but never got around to reading it so I came into the new Netflix series anime adaptation completely blind. From the cold open of its first episode, I was struck very hard by the very polished animated sequence of an MRT stalling in the middle of what looks like a section near Guadalupe station (what with all the flickering billboards).
From the get-go something inside me stirred when I saw everyday issues of my country (I’ve been on stalled MRTs before but not one where I was forced to walk in the tracks like in the pilot episode; though I’ve seen it while riding on a bus on EDSA) portrayed in a beautiful animation that looks comparable to the anime my brother watches sometimes. My knowledge of original Filipino animation is more centered around our wonderful 2D animation short films but I have not seen anything like ‘Trese’ before.
The show is centered around a paranormal investigator, Alexandra Trese, who aids the police in cases of supernatural origin. She is the inheritor of her father’s role of lakan, a position whose responsibility is to keep the treaty between the human world and the supernatural world intact. While she is human, she is also a babaylan like her mother, and with her small team they are more than enough to handle the complicated dealings between man and the underworld.
Each of the 6 episodes run from 25 to 33 minutes long but every detail breathes the same air as the Philippines I know so well. From the crowds that gather at the crime scene, attention-hungry politicians, errant cops, the scorching Manila heat, and the way we treat the poor, it’s all there in the series. And all this is side-by-side with reimaginations of our lower mythology such as a Nuno sa Manhole (rather than the Nuno sa Punso), aswangs, tikbalangs, and a host of our gods and goddesses from the different cultures of our country.
Even before I talk about the how well-structured the show is, I can’t stop talking about how it feels to watch something that is on the level with other animes on Netflix like the Japanese shows and even ‘Young Justice’ or ‘Justice League.’ It sounds corny, I know, and I am not even an avid anime watcher, but seeing this — an anime that is distinctly and authentically Filipino — makes me really proud and validates what I’ve always known: that we have the talent and the stories that can go toe-to-toe with anything that any other country can do.
The graphic novel of ‘Trese’ was first published in 2005 and has several volumes that have been published over the years, but the show was adapted to feel very contemporary and modern. There are imagery and issues that are tackled in the series that mirror and reflect our current issues today. Because Alexandra Trese’s job is to maintain the peace between two worlds and what I like about the show is that it’s not about good or evil; surprisingly, those aren’t the themes that pop-up while watching it. It feels more centered around balance.
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This is wonderfully portrayed in the smallest of details. When Alexandra Trese confronts an aswang tribe leader or an elemental lord, even if she suspects them for going out of line, there is still decorum and respect in how she deals with them and how they deal with her. This is a show that is unafraid to make its “monsters” scary and frightening (and I’ll say it, I love their depiction of both the tiyanak and the tikbalang) and because of that propriety is key and being polite is necessary in these tenuous dealings with the world beyond that of man.
Alexandra Trese is a highly competent and powerful character but she can be cold and emotionless (it’s what bothered me the most about Liza Soberano’s portrayal of her at the beginning). When the series starts, she’s someone you admire and respect because she’s so capable, but after a while you look for her humanity. The show substitutes that with such interesting characters that surround her from Captain Guerrero (voiced by Apollo Abraham), who calls her in when he has a case that he cannot solve, to Trese’s bodyguards Basilio and Crispin (both voiced by Simon dela Cruz, who are my favourite characters), and even the choc-nut obsessed underworld informant Nuno sa Manhole (voiced by Christian Velarde).
But as the show’s first four episodes feel episodic in nature — Trese solves one case each episode — you know that something is being set up in a larger arc as each episode’s cold open reveals more and more of Trese’s backstory and about the characters around her in a puzzling set of flashbacks. There is a thematic tie that links all the four episodes together that when the final two episodes happen, it all connects in a show stopping reveal that truly shows how well-planned the show is. Each episode makes the world bigger and grander and build towards its climactic episode five and six.
And it is the reveal of Alexandra’s past in episode five where I started to understand her characterisation and why Liza Soberano’s performance works for the character.
Trese is a tough person and while it can feel monotone, once you’ve realised what she’s been through, everything starts making sense and the show’s structure understands that while the protagonist must seem flat at the beginning before her big reveal, it makes up for it by presenting us with characters and a supernatural setting that makes up for her coldness.
I went through all six episodes in one go, enjoying the whole series and wanting more when it ended. Let me tell you this now: once you’ve reached the end, stay after the credits because there’s a little bonus that made me chuckle in joy.
All 6 episodes of TRESE are now streaming on Netflix.