Bill Willingham’s comic book Fables, set in a world where Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin and other characters from Eurasian fairy tales secretly live among us, has a lot going for it. Colorful panels depict the protagonist, a hulking, hairy police officer named Bigby (a.k.a. the Big Bad Wolf) solving convoluted crimes and beating bad guys to a bloody pulp.
Underneath all that, though, there is just something really magical about seeing these infamous figures leave the borders of the bedtime stories we know them from, and step out into the twisted, sinful streets of New York City. Think, in this case, of Beauty and the Beast having relationship issues, Prince Charming running for mayor, or Cinderella owning a shoe store and insisting people call her Cindy.
Trese, a new Netflix anime about a detective from the Philippines who works on cases involving creatures pulled from Filipino folklore, should evoke similar feelings. That said, considering international viewers will know next to nothing about the indigenous stories woven into the anime’s narrative, Trese might not leave as strong an impression as it will on those who grew up on them. Time, then, for a history lesson.
Amulets and potions
“What I love about Manila is that we still cling to our traditions and our faith,” said Budjette Tan, author of the eponymous comic on which Netflix’s Trese is based, during a panel hosted by the San Francisco Public Library earlier this month. “In the middle of a very modern metropolis, you have churches that are over 400 years old. In front of them, people sell magical amulets, potions and candles. It’s an interesting mix of embracing first-world technology while at the same time staying grounded in the things we believe.”
Tan, a former advertising executive, began writing the comic as means of escaping the monotony of his day job. His partner in crime, a fellow jaded cubicle worker with a knack for drawing named Kajo Baldisimo, illustrated Tan’s script during their lunch break. The duo dropped 30 copies at a local comics store thinking that would be it. Then, just one week later, the store called them saying they had already sold out.
That was back in 2005. Today, the story of Trese spans seven volumes and took home the Philippine National Book Award for Best Graphic Literature of the Year on three separate occasions. Passionate fans started a crowdfunding campaign to bring the comic across the Pacific Ocean, and — thanks in part to a tweet from Neil Gaiman — eventually convinced Netflix to turn the series into an animated series.
When interviewed by VICE in 2020, Tan listed his fascination with Filipino folklore as a major cause for his success. “Oh, thank you for writing about the stories that I heard when I was a kid,” readers would tell him when they ran into him. “Maybe it’s that we’re all familiar with [the stories]. Somehow I think that has contributed to its allure — even to foreign readers. Maybe they feel like, ‘I know what he’s talking about.’”
Maybe it’s time we look at an example. About halfway through the Netflix anime, paranormal detective Alexandra Trese arrives on a film set. She was called there by an actress who believes she is being haunted by the possessed body of her baby, which she discarded for fear it might get in the way of her promising acting career.
Non-Filipino viewers will look at this scene and see a possessed baby, reminding them of The Conjuring or perhaps Dante’s Inferno. Filipino viewers, on the other hand, will recognize this baby as a tiyanak. According to the Mandaya people of the Southern Philippines, tiyanaks are the evil spirits of abandoned babies, with abortion being seen as a particularly huge taboo in this majority Christian society.
Just as Fables does not bother telling the story of Sleeping Beauty when Bigby runs into her shopping at Tiffany’s, so too does Trese refuse to explain the origins of every aswang — shapeshifting spirit — that Alexandra butts heads with. In an age where most anime leave nothing up to the imagination, the fact that Tan and Baldisimo let you explore Manila without holding your hand feels rather refreshing, even if it does mean missing out on cool details and Easter eggs.
The folklore isn’t the only thing that might be lost on international viewers. By today’s standards, Alexandra is far from the only strong, independent female protagonist calling the shots in a world dominated by men and monsters. Back in 2005, when Tan and Baldisimo were still creating the series, the idea of giving this boyish genre a leading lady was nothing short of revolutionary.
Actually, Tan had been developing the world of Trese as early as 2002, but kept getting stuck without knowing why. It wasn’t until he proposed that Baldisimo draw the main character as a woman that the story began to really take off. Liza Soberano, the Filipina American actress who voices Alexandra in the anime, imbues her with the kind of stoic voice you hear in your head when reading the comics.
For all of these reasons and more, Trese is worth the watch. After you finish watching, though, I highly recommend you take a closer look at the source material. Despite its original story and cool character designs, the overall look of the anime is rather bland compared to its comics counterpart, with Baldisimo’s expressive use of black and white creating a look that is different from Japanese manga, and certainly nothing like Fables.
Keeping Watch is a regular endorsement of TV and movies worth your time.