‘Trese’ review: magic, monsters and Manila come together in this supernatural neo-noir

Netflix’s adaptation of Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo’s beloved detective comic is not perfect, but its tropical gothic flair will keep viewers coming back

In the gloriously rich anime Trese, it’s not only humans who commit crime. When night falls on Manila, mythological beings from Philippine folklore awaken and pull off murders, thefts and other offences – and it’s up to Alexandra Trese and her team to solve them.

One of the most hyped anime to come out of Netflix this year, Trese is based on the beloved Philippine graphic novel created by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo. The two are also showrunners of the series alongside Jay Oliva (The Legend Of Korra), who created and developed it for the screen.

Throughout the series, Alexandra and the kambal (twins) – her two supernaturally powered assistants Crispin and Basilio – work with a Manila police division to track down the ghoulish criminals and solve cases. As the series progresses, flashbacks reveal the history of her family, how she became the fabled mandirigma babaylan (loosely translated as “warrior shaman”) prophesied by seers, and how her father’s exploits as the previous enforcer leaves her in an awful predicament.

What hits you right off the bat is the way the Philippine capital is portrayed on-screen. If you’re one of the longtime readers who has a collection of the black-and-white comics from which this series was adapted, you’ll be surprised that the anime presents Manila in gorgeous, high-contrast colour – a neo-noir world that seethes with a more fantastic energy than its comic-book counterpart.

And if you have interest in Southeast Asian folklore, then there’s so much fun in the details of Trese. But if you’re coming into this cold, with zero knowledge of the many mythologies of the Philippines or what aswang, tikbalang, nuno, or the almighty talagbusao are, then you may be in for a confusing time.

Trese Netflix
Credit: Netflix

Trese’s best intersections of fantasy and realism get the gritty energy and sprawl of Manila right, making the anime feel at once natural and magical. Dwarfish earth elementals keep humans as pets. Lightning elementals, hands and eyes crackling with raw energy, own and run power companies. Mighty horse encanto live in heavily forested headquarters atop high rise buildings. And the predatory aswang monsters have their own wet market for illegal human meat – in this world, even monsters need an off-grid system for sustenance.

The folklore elements in both the series’ urban setting and its story arcs are what made the Trese comics so beloved. In the anime, those elements ramp up the magic realist vibe: the contrast of giant trees against neon lights and sexy wind elementals flirting at illegal street races will be visual heaven for those who dig this flavour of tropical gothic.

Alexandra Trese stands at the centre of Trese with the best reaction to the madness of her Manila: moody, sullen and distrustful. Caparisoned in a Chinese-cut trench coat and with a relaxed readiness to do battle at the drop of a centavo, she looks like what any city-dwelling Filipino feels on a normal day. She’s a joy to watch as a supernatural detective who’s also the enforcer of the “accords” between human and supernatural realms.

The voice acting of Alexandra, and certainly the whole English and Filipino language cast, is top notch. She’s voiced by Pinoy celebrity Liza Soberano in Filipino, while Shay Mitchell (of Pretty Little Liars fame) breathes life to the character in the English version. It seems as though almost all of Filipino-American stardom in the US worked on this – heck, even Lou Diamond Phillips and ex-Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger are here.

Trese Netflix
Credit: Netflix

Through each episode, we are treated to flashbacks of a young Alexandra and her family, and how she came to acquire her kambal assistants, magical tools and allies. We get pieces that try to complete the picture of a reluctant hero and her complex relationship with her departed father Anton.

It all weighs on Alexandra, so much that it often feels like she takes herself way too seriously, a brooding Batman armed with ancient magic and an enchanted knife. Yet she can’t shrug off the mantle of daughterly duty her father thrust on her after he died.

And this is where the storytelling gets twisted in its own cleverness. Several interesting plot points and seemingly pivotal characters are either downplayed or underused, and there are stray narrative threads that go nowhere.

For instance, Alexandra’s bartender and family retainer, Hank, is tangential in the anime despite being a breakout character in the comics. A few aswang tribe characters were given big, weighty introductions, yet the series doesn’t flesh them out – some are even killed off all too easily. And worst of all is the expository info dump by the series’ real enemy, who has to embark on a 10-minute-long monologue just to try and make sense of what happened over the last five episodes.

There is a whole lot of meat in Trese’s source material, which makes the plot holes feel all the more egregious. Hopefully, some of these will be plugged in a following season (which its creators have already plotted out).

Trese Netflix anime
Credit: Netflix

And despite all the visual world-building, we don’t get a sense of the rules that govern magic in Trese – even the shamanic ritual that gifts Alexandra her powers is glossed over. The limits and consequences of using these powers are not clear, and as a corollary, it’s almost as though Alexandra is simply a Southeast Asian Mary Sue. She’s never truly in mortal danger, and it often feels like there are no real stakes.

Nevertheless, Trese is a prime viewing choice for these cool, rainy nights of the monsoon season. This is the best and coolest animated series on Filipino folklore bar none, and, despite the hiccups and quirks that will hopefully be amended in the next season, it’s a damn fine one you should not miss.

‘Trese’ is out now on Netflix

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