Trese: The Grittiness of the Philippine Underworld Told in the Richness of Animated Manila

by Matthew Escosia
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By: Carl Cuevas

 

Since the publication of the Pinoy komik’s first issue in 2005, several attempts in film and TV show adaptations, and its announcement during 2019 See What’s Next Asia Netflix event, the highly anticipated animated Netflix Original series based on the award-winning graphic novel, Trese by writer Budjette Tan and illustrator Kajo Baldisimo has finally arrived.

Not gonna lie, It’s really, really awesome!

Tabi-tabi po. Before you continue reading, this will include some spoilers from the 6-episode first season.

Consider yourself warned.

Here is SEA Wave’s High Five review.

Trese follows the titular Alexandra Trese, a human detective who often lends her assistance to the local police for cases that involves the supernatural, as well as the upholder of the accords, that was established by her family, which aimed to maintain the peace and balance of humans and the supernatural beings in the Philippines.

In solving the crimes, she gets support from various supporting characters including The Kambal- Crispin and Basilio, demi-gods who provide the firepower for Alex during tight encounters, the beloved bartender of The Diabolical and Trese’s guardian, Hank as well as various supernatural entities from Philippine regional mythology such as the Santelmo, Tikbalangs and even the Nuno sa Punso, or should we say manhole.

The Plot, The Folklore and The Social Commentary

 Fans of the graphic novel might be a bit surprised at the change of pace in the Netflix series as it generally foregoes the original komik’s anthology format, for a typical central story arch setup while interweaving most of the 13 cases Trese investigates in the graphic novels. With the writing team of Tanya Yuson (also one of the Executive Producers), Zig Marasigan and Mihk Vergara and the supervision of Tan and Baldisimo as Showrunners, the team creates an efficient showcase of Alexandra Trese and her investigations in the Manila Underworld within 6 episodes. However, this ends up being a gift and curse as the efficiency achieves in meeting the storytelling objective in a limited number of episodes, but causing narrative problems such as some rushed and disjointed story plots, especially for those unfamiliar with the graphic novels, as well as losing the context and deep-dive on the local lores which were given more reverence in the printed version. But nonetheless, it leaves enough tease for those curious about the Filipino supernatural, especially for international audiences who will most likely have Trese as their entry-point to the Philippine mythos.

Retaining the graphic novel’s Manila noir vibe, the series also provides commentary on the socio-political situation of the country and subtly includes messages on the impact of injustice and class disparities. Overall, the tone is very gritty and challenges the audiences to think on who really are the true monsters of Manila: the supernatural, or those living and yet continue to abuse their power and opportunities.

Amazing Characters

SEA Wave - Trese Anime Series Netflix Maliksi

Despite the condensed cases, the writers were able to keep a lot of the key characters from the graphic novels, including some minor fan-favorites with expanded roles. There is something refreshing to see the Kambal fighting alongside their Bossing in animated form, as well as Hank who from being the resident Bartender of The Diabolical in the komiks, now having his own adventures as an Alfred Pennyworth butler-type character serving the Trese Family and eventually becoming Alex’s adult guardian as she was growing up. Aside from being a given a craving for a popular local (and oversized) chocolate bar, The Nuno sa Punso/ Manhole was also bumped up to a more prominent role as Alexandra’s ears on the ground (pun intended) which works both to Alex’s advantage and disadvantage. The Emissary of the goddess Ibu also makes an appearance plus there’s a much-appreciated upgrade on Hana and Amie, the taong hangin (wind people) who were there not just to flirt with Crispin and Basilio, but were also able to provide additional #GirlPower in the season’s final battle.

Top-notch Animation

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Needless to say, the animation is top-notch. In the context of the pandemic, the opening sequence of seeing Manila in its animated glory brings enough realism and nostalgia without going too much into poverty porn. Under the supervision of Executive Producer Jay Oliva, known for his directorial work for several DC Comics animated films and has also directed the show’s pilot and season finale, the visual artist team is successful in achieving the Manila Noir look, and shows off the different locales of Metro Manila in both of its beauty and grit. Part of the joy in watching the series is seeing popular Metro Manila buildings and landmarks appearing in the show as cameos and as key locations in the stories.

Trese just proves it’s really high-time for more animated projects in the country and finally give our local animators the spotlight and opportunities to work on cool and interesting stories like this.

The Voice Cast

SEA Wave - Trese Anime Series Netflix Nuno

The series is available in four dubbed languages: English, Filipino, Japanese and Spanish. For this review, we’ll be focusing on the English and Filipino dubs. In the Philippine version, Liza Soberano provides the voice for the titular hero. While most of the Filipino voice acting cast were great, Liza unfortunately falls short on delivering the gravitas and conviction needed for the stoic heroine. This was further emphasized with the inconsistent use of language in the Filipino dub script, in which certain episodes feature conversations using formal Filipino making some of the dialogues become… awkward and unrealistic (which is saying something about a show that features ghosts, aswangs and tyanaks). While this is forgivable for Alex’s conversations with the ancient supernatural folk, however this shouldn’t be the case for scenes involving Alex and other human characters. However, I have noticed that certain episodes don’t have this problem, so maybe this could’ve been easily remedied by the show’s continuity editor.

Going back to Liza, admittedly, she somehow improves in the latter part of the season, but overall, Liza’s Alexandra Trese still lands on a monotonous note: either bored or bored but with a bit more intensity. Hopefully she gets enough preparation and further coaching should the series get a 2nd season.  Another slight letdown in the Filipino dub is the season’s main antagonist, Datu Talagbusao (Bryan Encarnacion) who delivers a 10-minute monologue at the season finale, which should feel ominous, but unfortunately also falls a bit flat.

On the other hand, the English dub suffers a reverse problem from the Filipino dub. Shay Mitchell’s Alexandra Trese is spot on in providing a stoic yet layered performance in her voice acting. However, the forced and inconsistent Filipino accent (which in some cases sounds borderline Mexican or Latino) for the secondary characters causes it to be more of a distraction for some scenes.

However, one major highlight is the voice work of Datu Talagbusao by legend video game voice actor Steven Blum whose extensive work in voice acting shows: Blum’s performance sounds more naturally Filipino than some of the performances in the Filipino dub.

The English voice cast also provides a lot of cool cameos from Hollywood’s prominent Fil-Am actors and actresses including theater legend Jon-Jon Briones (Hank), Lou Diamond Phillips (Mayor Santamaria), Dante Basco (Bagyon Kulimlim), The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto (Maliksi), Nicole Scherzinger (Miranda Trese) as well as Emmy and Golden Globe winner, Darren Criss (Marco Guerrero).

I have yet to listen to the Japanese and Spanish dubs, but based on other peer reviews the two other foreign dubs also provide a different vibe to the show, and the subtitles pretty accurate. Overall, despite the concerns previously raised, the Filipino dub provides a better performance and immersive experience for the show.

Great Soundtrack

SEA Wave - Trese Anime Series Netflix

Lastly, an anime isn’t complete without a great soundtrack. Trese’s closing theme, Paagi is performed by Up Dharma Down whose signature bassline coupled Armi Millare’s haunting vocals perfectly matches the vibe to cap off each end of the episode. However, the more pleasant surprise is the opening theme created by the Kiner Brothers, known for their scoring for shows such as Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars: Rebels, Star Wars: The Bad Batch, Doom Patrol, Narcos: Mexico, and Titans.

In the wrong hands, this could easily have ended being a very clichéd and exoticized Asian music, but the Kiner Brothers was able to create a great and appropriate opening score inspired by the Ifugao hudhud chant which is often used in key rituals, including funeral wakes.

Verdict: (4 ½  Waves out of 5)

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Honestly, I couldn’t stop smiling while I was watching the pilot of this series. Admittedly, there were some minor questionable decisions in translating the novels into the 6-episode series, but in the end, the entire Trese Team was able to successfully deliver a finished product worth of #PinoyPride, and a perfect sampler of Filipino Mythology to international audiences. Beyond local biases, I hope Netflix greenlights a second season of this animated series as well as an option more local stories to be brought to the streaming platform.

 

P.S.

After you binge-watch Trese (and its multiple dubs), don’t forget to check out other great works about Filipino mythology including the short film, Ella Arcangel: Oyayi sa Dilim on YouTube, which came out last year as well as to watch out for the upcoming TBA Studio’s animated film adaptation of Arnold Arre’s The Mythology Class, both of which are based on local graphic novels too! BTW, you might also want to know that Trese has a post-credit scene that you might not want to skip the Credits for.

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