In Filipino supernatural comic book Trese’s Metro Manila, modern tech and pop culture live alongside a bestiary of mythic creatures. Winged viscera-suckers fly across the Central Business District’s skyline and demigods influence politics and policy making—even meddling in the outcome of big boxing matches.
This may all seem like the kind of perfect fever dream for pure escapism, but the cases that occult detective Alexandra Trese investigates hit quite close to home for ordinary Filipinos.
“Trese's creatures are more reflective of facets in Philippine society than they are of comic villains,” said Jordan Clark, director of The Aswang Phenomenon, a documentary on Philippine mythology. “You have the vampiric aswangs running a black market, reverse centaur tikbalang corporate giants, and other demons like maligno monsters that disguise themselves as humans.”
And now, Trese is heading to Netflix.
On November 8, 2018, Netflix’s director of anime Taito Okiura announced that an adaptation of Trese would be part of the streaming giant’s 17 new original productions from Asia.
What this means is an opportunity for Philippine mythology to be taken on its own merits: to have the narratives and metaphors of a whole country examined within context, sans dilution and diminution, unlike what Hollywood did with its Americanized versions of J-horror.
“People have this notion that I did a ton of research for Trese. But the first two books were really based on experiences I grew up with,” co-creator Budjette Tan told VICE.
“Growing up in a very Catholic household there’s a deep sense of mystical external forces, often bigger than you. That maybe these beings are the ones making things happen behind the scenes? You just can’t help but tell these stories because they’re part of growing up in a city like Manila, in a country like the Philippines.”
Across six anthologies, Tan and illustrator Kajo Baldisimo mined the treasure trove of Philippine folklore to tell the story of their titular, kick-ass heroine, a detective with mysterious skills and otherworldly weapons, who works with the police to solve crimes that defy science and ordinary motives.
First published in 2005, the comics is now arguably one of the most popular and accessible ways to dip your toes into the world of Philippine mythology. The anthologies have since been re-printed in the thousands according to its publisher, as cosplayers, fan fiction, and fan illustrations swelled its fanbase, and gained followers in the likes of fantasy author Neil Gaiman.
Reading the compelling characters written by Tan aptly rendered in black-and-white by Baldisimo’s art, its noir treatment of urban fantasy is easy to dig into, using the classic formula of detective case stories.
But this, and the shift to a wider, streaming platform, raises concerns among observers.
“Trese leans too much on comic book and detective story themes that some of the original spirit of the myths are lost,” said Karl Gaverza, independent researcher and ethnologist who curates the online archive Spirits of the Philippine Archipelago. “At the very least the [Netflix] anime will have more of an opportunity to further an authentic take on what is Filipino about these myths.”
Context would set many things right, especially in light of how Western fantasy series, like Grimm and Lost Girl, have previously treated Philippine monsters as, frustratingly, mere novelties or narrative filigree.
Context would also honor the strange, gritty magic realist milieu that millions of Filipinos live in, where drug war-related killings by authorities have risen to the tens of thousands, while local news proffer headlines of murders by blood-sucking aswangs.
“Trese was written because I needed a release that didn’t need anyone else’s approval, least of all a client. At the same time it was also a product of being stuck on [Manila’s] EDSA highway every day and having so much time to imagine,” said Tan.
Tan, Baldisimo, and the producers have high hopes however, that the Netflix series will only be positive for the Philippine comic series – like how the Hayao Miyazaki films under Studio Ghibli shone a transformative spotlight on Japan’s animist folklore. With such a growing fascination and a sizeable amount of works based on Philippine myths, Trese is the boot that might kick down the door to an international audience where the rest can follow.
“One of the great things about what Budjette [Tan] and Kajo [Baldisimo] have created is that for those that are not familiar with life in Manila, the story is still compelling,” said Tanya Yuson of BASE Entertainment, one of the producers for the anime adaptation.
“While for those who understand the setting and the context, there are still a lot of fresh takes on traditional mythology and how it’s immersed in the modern world.”
Clark is of the same hopeful opinion. “Trese’s Netflix series could be an entertaining tool to help elevate the weird, wonderful, and complex world of Philippine mythology enough that Filipinos themselves take notice and start appreciating it more as part of their cultural identity.”
It also helps that it is Filipino-American Jay Oliva, animated film director of Warner Bros and DC-animated projects like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Justice League Dark, that will take the directorial helm. Oliva is also the executive producer of the project that is set for a 2020 release.
For now, Tan is excited to welcome a wider foreign audience to his and Baldisimo’s work – to enjoy the ride and encourage the appetite for more Filipino myths.
“On a surface level when I tell these stories, I think I’m trying to project my questions and find answers from the world,” Tan said.