The six-part anime series “Trese” is currently number one on Netflix’s Top 10 list of most-watched series/movies in the Philippines. According to Sunday’s reports, it has also penetrated the streaming giant’s Top 10 lists in Canada and the United Arab Emirates.
Families have been binge-watching it since it’s premiere Friday, June 11, and our Facebook feeds have since then been filled with nothing but “Trese”—debates on which of the voices serve the narrative better (Shay Mitchell's or Lisa Soberano's?), the awesome visual depiction of gritty Manila, and the Filipino pride over an international streaming and content-creating giant picking up and investing in a comic book from the Philippines.
But just how did this graphic novel about kapres, aswangs and engkantos released by writer Budjette Tan and artist Kajo Baldisimo more than ten years ago find its way to Netflix? According to writer and executive producer Tanya Yuson, it had quite a journey.
“I’d read ‘Trese’ in Manila in 2009. At that time I was looking for material to adapt to either a series or films,” Yuson said last week in an exclusive forum with the series’ top creatives. “I picked up a copy in National Bookstore because somebody asked me to. She said you should read this, it’s a local graphic novel, and it’s really good! I read it and I was blown away.”
There were a lot of things that spoke to the writer about the graphic novel. It is set in the Manila she grew up in. It features the mythological creatures she’s heard of. On top of it all, “the twist is so fresh and so amazing and I felt like this was something we could adapt,” said Yuson whose background includes working for New Line Cinema and The Walt Disney Company. She also worked on “Smallville,” the TV series, and “Hannah Montana The Movie.”
The Filipina brought the comic book to her producing partner Shanty Harmayn who was convinced they should try pitching the idea of adapting it to animation. “At that time, nobody was really picking up anything from the Philippines, said Yuson. “So we pitched to local studios and also to international studios.” Until they reached Netflix Anime who said yes. “And then we were, like, is this really happening?! After all this time?! We were actually gonna make the series! And we could get Jay Oliva to work with us and that just made it even more amazing.”
Jay Oliva is a Fil-Am storyboard artist and director of animated features. He’s directed, to name a few, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Batman, The Dark Knight Returns,” “Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme,” and “Man of Steel.” Netflix got in touch with him in May of 2018 and Oliva gave his yes by July that year.
Oliva said it was only in his flight to Manila, where he would meet with Yuson and the “Trese” writers, that he got to read the comic novel. “They didn’t have it in the US and they had to email me the copy because it was too late to ship it to me,” the director recalled.
On the same flight, he started formulating the animated series in his head, but he knew he needed to find out from Yuson and her team what they really love about “Trese.” He wanted a balance of stuff the fans want and stuff that would hook those just coming into the “Trese” universe.
He also wanted to keep the comic book’s universal themes of family and identity. “Even though I grew up here in the US I was raised very traditionally as a Filipino,” said the Fil-Am director. “One of the themes I really wanted to focus on was family and duty, and what that means. Because when I read the comic I could see Alexandra Trese kind of fighting that. Who is she as a woman and what is the life she wants to lead outside of what her family wants? That’s a very universal idea and also very Filipino.”
So what were the challenges of adapting the comic book to anime? “When you adapt between mediums, there are things you need to flesh out,” said Yuson. “Kajo and Budjette and I have talked about it like a long time ago. I told them, ‘Look, you have to be emotionally prepared that [the adaptation] kind of morphs from what you have on the page.’” The writer-executive producer didn’t have to work too hard talking to the boys. “To their credit, they said, ‘Yeah, go for it. We wanna see what you guys end up doing.’ So we felt like, ‘They have the confidence in us to do it, lets run with it.’”
Yuson and company began work with Alexandra Trese herself, the comic book’s heroine who investigates supernatural crimes, and guards the passage between the real world and the underworld. “What we see from Alexandra on the page, there’s not a lot about her emotional life with her found family and what had happened to her parents so we want to expand on that. We were taking cues from the book but we’re filling out what you don’t see," Yuson offered. "And then the other part is really grounding it into authentic details of the Philippines and at the same time making it accessible to audiences who don’t know about us or who never grew up here or are new to this world.”
For Oliva, however, the real challenge in transporting the “Trese” experience from page to animation was to never let go of the book's inherent tone. “I wanted the hardcore fans to think that Kajo and Budjette wrote it and had animated it themselves.”
With all the success it’s been reaping and how far their comic book has gone, we imagine Kajo and Budjette are just overjoyed. Asked what they want audiences to take away from watching “Trese,” Budjette is quick with a true creative’s reply. “That we have a fantastic universe as far as our own mythology and folklore is concerned,” he said, adding that it would also be nice if, through the series, Filipinos will find a new appreciation for Manila.
“Hopefully [Filipinos] can look at the city again and see some magic in it, no matter how frightening it may be,” continued Budjette. “We might feel bored of our daily commute. We might feel very tired and stressed because of the lockdown, but hopefully the next time you do step out and look down at that manhole on that street corner, you would think there might really be a magical side to this city after all.”