Series Review: Supernatural Anime ‘Trese’ Captivates With Its Bewitching Takes on Filipino Folklore6 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Set in Manila where the mythical creatures of Philippine folklore live in hiding amongst humans, Alexandra Trese finds herself going head to head with a criminal underworld composed of malevolent supernatural beings.
Director: Jay Oliva, Mel Zwyer, David Hartman, Tim Divar
Cast: Shay Mitchell, Carlos Alazraqui, Eric Bauza, Steve Blum, Matthew Yang King
Language: English, Tagalog
Runtime: 25 – 33 minutes
Based on the award-winning comic book series of the same name, Trese is the Philippines’ first animated series. It also happens to be among the very best of its kind from Southeast Asia, giving the world a taste of the vast untapped possibilities found from stories based in the region.
The fantasy-horror series captivates with its one-of-a-kind setting, where modern takes on Filipino mythologies roam Manila’s underworld. More than with its abundance of blood and scares, fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Justice League (The Animated Series) will appreciate the mature story found in Trese, delving into social issues haunting the Phillippines today as much as the supernatural does in the animated world.
Its storytelling, however, does leave much to be desired, with drawn-out expositions doing a ton of heavy lifting, and its tendency to lazily introduce new worldbuilding elements as convenient solutions to the protagonists’ challenges. The rigidity of the animation work exacerbates the protagonist’s cold impersonal stoicism. Yet if nothing else, Trese is a fantastic proof-of-concept for Southeast Asian animation and an engaging introduction to Filipino folklore.
Based in modern Manila, the world of Trese is occupied by both humans and supernatural beings hiding amidst the dense metropolis. Flanked by twin brothers Crispin and Basilio (Griffin Puatu), Alexandra Trese (Shay Mitchell) is one of the few dedicated to maintaining the delicate balance between the two worlds.
They are called in by the local police, headed by Captain Guerrero (Matthew Yang King), whenever there are otherworldly crimes that heed at an upset of this balance. A recent rash of these incidents eventually brings the young Trese to come face to face with the various tribes of the supernatural world and the truth behind her lineage as a Lakan, or protector.
Throughout its first season, Trese largely follows a creature-of-the-week format, each diving into specific tribes drawn from or inspired by Filipino mythology. While supernatural beings retain their distinctive characteristics from folklore, they are also updated to match the circumstances of modern times.
Man-eating Aswangs retreat and thrive in underground black markets to satiate their appetite for human flesh. Tikbalangs, or part-man, part-horse creatures, shapeshift between forms to participate in night drag races and take refuge in skyscrapers dense with greenery. Nunos, or nature spirits, dwell in the city’s sewage system instead of their traditional dens of anthills and mounds and are summoned by uttering “tabi tabi po”.
These imaginative takes on the mythologies serve as conduits to Trese’s commentary on social issues in the Philippines, namely political corruption, police brutality and abortion. Not all are accorded equal attention, although an episode’s out-of-the-blue focus on Captain Guerrero’s mundane daily life and the corruption he looks to wrangle within his force remains a high point for the season. Some issues are not accorded any attention at all beyond cursory mentions.
A similar quantity over quality approach is found in the series’ worldbuilding; the storytelling can feel lazy at parts. Every challenge Trese faces are dispelled by the introduction of a completely new supernatural technique or through the help of a new supernatural entity. It’s one thing to introduce, but another thing for these introductions to also be convenient solutions. All these are joined by flashbacks to Trese’s childhood that tugs at mystery. But so much is left on the table by the end of the season that the finale has to attempt to wrap everything up with an elongated monologue practically retelling the season’s entire plot.
The story also suffers from a distinct lack of humanity from its lead. It’s quite a challenge to find any stills or scenes of Trese without her stoic expressions. Perhaps because she grew up surrounded by death and supernatural beings and nothing fazes her anymore. Or perhaps because she knows that she has plot armour because threats never amount to much. Either way, while the series’ side characters all pick up the slack in this department, they are not enough to steal attention away from an overall uninteresting lead.
The cast does a solid job overall. The entire English and Tagalog language cast are of Filipino descent, which adds to the series’ dedication to its portrayal of Filippino culture and city life. A lot of what limits the voices back from bringing their characters to life is with the series’ animation style.
Trese’s world is engaging and appropriately terrifying when visuals are kept mostly static, but the animation budget shows its limits when fists start flying where characters feel rigid in their movements. The overall art style, however, never misses the mark. The series is quite liberal in its bloodshed, but what brings the gritty edge its depiction of modern Manila — vibrant yet saturnine with both humans and the supernatural just trying their best to adapt and get by. Equally terrific is Trese’s soundtrack, fully embracing the midway point between mythology and modernity with its mix of traditional instrumentations and neo-noir-inspired beats.
Trese is at its best when it plays with the already-fantastical world of Filipino folklore and presents a version that effortlessly melds into a modern setting. There is clear excitement from the team for the source material, the mythologies behind it, and for presenting an authentic representation of Filippino culture. Where Trese falters is exactly within this excitement, introducing way too much while explaining way too little, packed in a story that lacks severity and danger. There is a winning formula here, and perhaps now with so much exposition out of the way, there should be no doubts that a possible second season will further elevate the series.
Trese is now streaming on Netflix