Inquirer Super

‘TRESE’ is here

By: Ruel S. De Vera

Alexandra Trese and the Kambal

It is only proper that Ferdinand-Benedict “Budjette” Tan lived in a haunted house when he was a baby. “I guess at the end of the day, living in a haunted house has helped me write these stories and it was, you know, ticked off this whole notion or feeling that we are living in a very magical, you know, a version of Manila, where there are ghosts, and so on everywhere,” Tan told Super via Zoom from Billund, Denmark, where he works for LEGO.

It may have started there but, like all things magical, it takes an alignment of elements to summon something powerful. Tan wrote in his Ateneo college yearbook writeup in 1994 that he would write his own comic book someday. Meanwhile, Jonathan Abdula “KaJO” Baldisimo has left his studies at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts to work in design.

The two crossed paths, of all places, in advertising. Tan worked at Harrison Communications, just three buildings away from Baldisimo at McCann-Erickson.

On June 2005, Baldisimo sent Tan a text message suggesting they collaborate on a 20-page monthly comic book over just 20 days. Challenge accepted.

Tan had worked on a horror-themed radio show with a narrator named Anton Trese. The decision was soon made to make the character female, and given a widow’s peak, because Baldisimo had one at the time. “Initially that was for Anton because he was the first one we designed and he had that because I saw myself in the mirror, and I had one,” Baldisimo said. ” And we decided she has to be a girl and that was that’s cool by me so we just maintained that design,” the Davao-based Baldisimo said. He also added the “feisty personality” of the girl who would eventually become his wife, Divine, “because she always gets her way.”

World and Underworld: Meet Alexandra Trese.

“TRESE” would be a paranormal procedural, where Alexandra and her bodyguards the Kambal would be called upon by Manila police when cases emerge with supernatural elements. This was done by integrating urban legends and modern interpretations of Filipino folklore and mythology in the stories. Tan wrote the stories and Baldisimo provided the black-and-white art; they photocopied the komiks and sold them for Php30 an issue.

“TRESE” developed a cult following but it was in 2008, when “TRESE” was picked up by Visprint, Inc., and repackaged in digest format that the series really took off. Tan and Baldisimo had originally planned “TRESE” to run, what else, 13 issues, but that soon transformed as the monster-of-the-week format began to explore more of the Trese family’s history. Nida Ramirez, former publishing manager of the now-defunct Visprint confirmed that “TRESE” was one of the company’s best-selling series ever, with an extraordinary 86,000 copies sold. In fact, “TRESE Vol. 7: Silent Witness,” released in 2019, was the last title released by Visprint.

Tan and Baldisimo have never stopped their efforts to bring “TRESE” to an international audience, launching an Indiegogo campaign in 2018, and finally, finding a North American publisher in Ablaze Publishing, with “TRESE Vol. 1: Murder in Balete Drive” released on Nov. 2020 to critical acclaim; “TRESE Vol. 2: Unreported Murders” has been scheduled for release and the third volume has also been announced. All these feature completely redrawn art by Baldisimo. Avenida Books, the new publishing house by the very same Nida Ramirez, has already started releasing these remastered volumes in the Philippines. Tan and Baldisimo are already at work on the eighth volume in the original series.

Maliksi and other Underworld beings

But the most world-breaking “TRESE” news came in 2018 when, at Netflix’s See What’s Next: Asia event in Singapore that “TRESE” would become a Netflix Original Anime series, with Filipino American Jay Oliva (“Justice League: Dark”) as showrunner. Since then, the anticipation over the series dropping has only increased, especially when Liza Soberano was announced as the Filipino voice actor for Alexandra; Fil-Am Shay Mitchell (“Pretty Little Liars”) would provide the English voice.  The buzz only got louder when the “TRESE” billboards went up all over with the June 11 premiere date—only for the impossibly high billboards to all somehow be vandalized.

From the very beginning, every effort was made to keep one of “TRESE’s” most unique charms—or gayuma—its Metro Manila setting. Executive producer Tanya Yuson said: “When they came over for a story summit and did a trek around Manila, because I grew up here, and show them parts of the culture that they might not have been familiar so we took them on walking tours around like Quiapo to find these old buildings, showing them like the exhibits at the National Museum and the gold exhibit at the museum. And the very first day that they landed like they landed at seven in the morning at lunchtime I made them ride the MRT all 13 stations during the lunch rush hour. So, I think they felt, you know the rhythm and the heat and the noise and the, you know, the quality of Manila and I think they translated it beautifully for the animated series.”

But Yuson had to make sure “TRESE” would still translate well to a non-Filipino audience: “The framework is the police procedural, so I think a lot of the international audience is familiar with that kind of format.  And then it was a way for us to introduce Manila, and the rest of the supernatural underworld to them as well.”

It was also a significant experience for Oliva. “I think the biggest thing for me of course is you know working on a Filipino project because everything I worked on is very western right it’s Marvel, DC, all of these kinds of different stories never ever set in Manila. And it was one of the things that I wanted to make Manila a character. I wanted to be as authentic even though I didn’t grow up in Manila I wanted to try to capture that as much as I can. And like anya mentioned, you know, you know, I came up with the idea of the MRT opening, because we were on the MRT and she said oh by the way, sometimes it breaks down and you just walked and I’m like what, yeah you just walked the tracks. And to me, oh, that’s a great setup for the opening. The stories from my family tended to romanticize Manila. By the time I finally did go to Manila, I had a version of Manila in my mind and it was totally different. When I read the comic of ‘TRESE,’ I wanted to try to capture that.”

Any Filipino will immediately recognize Metro Manila in the six episodes, beginning with the aswang attack on the MRT in Guadalupe. It’s clearly Manila by night. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “TRESE” the anime is how it diverges from the komiks. Alexandra and the Kambal come to dynamic, supernatural action, and the hallmarks from the title (the modernized mythology) are here, but the story has been changed so that even those with complete collections won’t see what’s coming. Netflix has folded in the murders and abductions into the Trese family secrets that all comes together in the breath-taking final episode. It’s beautiful and it’s bloody. It’s gripping and it’s frightening.

Nuno

Yuson is sanguine about the changes: “It was also born from the fact that like you want to tell a good story. We wanted to like keep everyone on edge. As with any adaptation from like a book to screen, you can’t be too precious with what’s there you want to keep the spirit for sure, you don’t have to betray that but you want to at the end of the day, you want to have people go through this great story with a satisfying ending.”

“TRESE” is significant of course as the first Filipino Netflix Original Anime, and the excellent show gives us hope for a blood-soaked season two—and maybe even other Filipino properties which can be adapted into international animation. If there’s anything the pandemic has taught the world is how to watch streamed content with subtitles—and “TRESE” is available with Filipino, English, Spanish and Japanese subtitles. A personal recommendation: Watch it first in Filipino, then watch it in English (which is the default setting) and then watch it in the awesome Japanese dub to see, yes, it is anime. This excellent adaptation of the excellent komiks can scare viewers around the world—and it will.

Alexandra Trese

In an interview right after the Netflix project was announced, Tan said: “The cliché answer would be ‘It’s a dream come true!’ One of our readers just showed me the Afterword I wrote for Book 4 where I talked about dreaming of the day there would be a ‘TRESE’ movie or TV show, but I said that things didn’t work out that year and that me and KaJO will just focus on doing what we do best: tell comic book stories. So, I am thankful and excited and ecstatic that a ‘TRESE’ series will finally happen and even more excited that it will be under Netflix! This would be that we’ll finally get to share our love for Philippine myth and folklore to a global audience.”

In Manila, hours before the premiere, a waiting city looked up in wonder and fear as thunder boomed, lightning struck and rain finally fell.

“TRESE” was here.

“TRESE” is now streaming on Netflix.