In 2005, two ad men from the Philippines gave birth to stapled photocopies of a crime-horror comic they cobbled together during lunch hours. Writer Budjette Tan and artist Kajo Baldisimo’s Trese followed its titular detective’s romp across Manila’s underbelly, where creatures from Philippine folklore lurked. In the years after, Alexandra Trese’s aswang-busting exploits would span several volumes, win local literary awards and become a beloved cult hit.
But its appeal won’t be bound to Philippine shores. Last year, US-based publisher Ablaze picked up the graphic novel for wider release in North America. And at midnight tonight, Trese will reach its largest audience yet, when its much-awaited anime adaptation premieres worldwide on Netflix.
Whether you’re a Trese die-hard since day one or just plainly intrigued, there’ll be something in the six-episode series to surprise. NME spoke with Tan and Baldisimo, along with writer-producer Tanya Yuson, director Jay Oliva, and Trese herself, Liza Soberano, about why the new horror-fantasy should be on your binge-watch bucket list.
Alexandra Trese is the fierce female rep you didn’t know you needed
The iconic V-shaped fringe, black trench coat, choice of a single shorthand knife for a weapon – Alexandra Trese isn’t just an effortlessly cool, crime-fighting gumshoe. She’s a ghostbusting superhero that dispatches threats from the netherworld when the city’s police can’t.
That’s because she happens to be a babaylang mandirigma, loosely translated as “shaman warrior”, or as Liza Soberano better puts it, “a very brave and badass chick. Even though what she goes through is scary – because of course she’s battling these evil supernatural beings – she’s not afraid of them”.
Soberano, who lends Trese her Filipino voice, tells NME that “it’s very cool to see a female [character] like that because most of the time we see male detectives and these amazing male superheroes. But nowadays there’s more representation for women, with good characters that represent how strong-willed and courageous women are as well.”
The buck doesn’t stop at the show’s titular heroine though.
There’s no shortage of ghoulish and glorious creatures with quirks
“One character I love a lot is Nuno,” Soberano says of the pesky dwarf-like elemental who lives in the sewer and resurfaces every so often to swap intel for gifts. “He’s so funny to me because you have to bribe him to get something out of him. Like, you have to give him chocolate just to get some information,” Soberano says. “I don’t want to say that it’s a very Filipino thing, but sometimes it kind of is, if you think about it.”
The comic’s creators, meanwhile, have a soft spot for Trese’s gun-toting henchmen Crispin and Basilio, better known as the kambal (twins). “They’re always a lot of fun,” Baldisimo says.
Tan adds that they’re just as “fun to write”: “As much as we’ve depicted them as tough enforcers and ever loyal sidekicks to Trese, whenever they just come into a scene, the dialogue just writes itself and I can never predict what the brothers would say.”
Maybe it’s the kambal’s wry chatty volleys, or how casually they play down death-defying situations, but Tan goes as far to say that he “once did a survey on the website and more people like the kambal than Trese”.
It’s got blood, guts, and gruesome murders – but there’s also laughter
How important is humour in a horror-fantasy genre? “Very,” says series writer and producer Tanya Yuson, adding that the “balance has to be right” when adapting lighter moments in the comic book for the screen.
Director Jay Oliva, also of DC Animated Universe fame, adds, “When you do a horror series you have to pace it like a roller coaster: there’s high tension, then you’ve got to relieve it with moments of levity, and then bring it up again.”
He explains that having a sense of humour alongside fostering familial bonds is intrinsically Filipino: “The moments where there is comedy or levity is when you see the interaction between the characters. And that’s where you kind of fall in love with them more.
“One thing that I mentioned to Tanya in the beginning was: I want this to be about family. Because being Filipino myself, I know [family] is at the very core of [life]. Let’s make it about the family, and I think that’s one of the times where the funny moments come out.”
A curiously sinister story arc unfolds throughout six episodes
Trese geeks who remember devouring the comic’s collection of episodic short stories will have something else to look forward to in the anime adaptation. Written for the screen by Yuson, Zig Marasigan and Mihk Vergara, the roughly half-hour episodes are linked together like puzzle pieces that together form a larger story arc.
“There’s something bigger going on here, the tribes need to be united,” Trese insists, as heard in the trailer. “The tempest is brewing, and there are liars amongst your allies,” warns another voice. Towards the end of over two hours, everything comes to a ripping boil, and you’ll be rewarded for having binge-sat through it. Tip: stay past the credits on the final episode.
Horror fiction aside, Trese is a neat little tour of the Philippines and Pinoy culture
Ever tasted a Choc-nut? Or headed to a chicken joint called Mang Inasal? Whether it’s tipping the hat to Filipino food or giving Metro Manila commuters a wink-nudge by opening the series with a stalled train (“MRTs and LRTs are always breaking down, and I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that,” says Soberano), Trese puts a slice of the Filipino experience onto the small screen. “I wanted to capture what Manila felt like… and we tried to stay as authentic as we could,” Oliva says.
Having the Trese voice actors – Lou Diamond Philips, Dante Basco, Nicole Scherzinger and Shay Mitchell – speak in a Pinoy accent in the English-language version, Yuson says, was “pretty key”. “The characters speak English in the English-language version and yet the spells are in Filipino. You couldn’t cross over into saying the spells if your accent was either too American or Canadian,” she explains.
Yuson adds that it makes the transition easier, but it also reminds you of how Manileños speak – with a vaguely American accent: “It gets to that point where people say, ‘Is that an American accent or is it not?’”
Tan and Baldisimo are working on more issues of Trese, and a second season may already be in the works
“We do know where to go, Tanya and I. We’ve plotted it out,” Oliva says about the anime catching up with the seven published books in the Trese comic series. “We’re hoping that we get a big order for the next season.”
And Trese’s creators say they’re starting work again on the graphic novels with “six more books” planned. “The grand plan is to reach book 13 and that will tell the story of Alexandra Trese,” Tan says. (Incidentally, the word “trese” is also Pinoy slang for “13”).
“Let’s see how many seasons Jay [Oliva] will be able to do, and how many books me and Kajo will finish in the next couple of years,” Tan continues. “But yeah, we have so many creatures in Filipino folklore, so there’s definitely a lot for Trese to investigate.”
‘Trese’ premieres on Netflix on June 11