This week, the much-awaited anime adaptation for the “Trese” graphic novels finally premiered on Netflix, a triumph of Filipino innovation and representation. In 2019 I wrote about “Modern-day ‘aswang’” (1/7/19) and how title character Alexandra Trese navigates the politics of humans and monsters in her supernatural detective work. The procedural and noir elements in the series have always reminded me of Raymond Chandler’s famous essay of musings on the detective-hero, “The Simple Art of Murder”: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…”
One of the most striking moments in the adaptation is a moment that does not quite appear in the same exact way in the original medium. In episode 4, at an outpost, the world-weary Captain Guerrero reprimands one of his men for mistreating a detainee, who resists arrest and cries “Wala akong kasalanan!” Accused of thug-like behavior, the subordinate merely says, “Basta ang alam ko po, nanlaban ‘tong isang ‘to.” “Iba ang nakikita ko,” Captain Guerrero retorts. “Hindi pwede sa ’kin ang loko-lokong abusado.”
The English subtitles for Captain Guerrero say something slightly different: “I told you, I want none of that quota shit here.” It’s a rather oblique reference to the “quotas” to be met by arresting authorities for drug offenders. “Wala namang mabait na pulis,” a character says later. “Hindi kami tao para sa inyo. Numero lang.”
The deliberate and politically suggestive wording of “nanlaban,” references to the quota, and a clear portrayal of police abuse are but a few moments, strung throughout the show, that seem to mirror the reality of Metro Manila in 2021. These have not gone unnoticed by fans or critics. The latter accuse the production team of politicizing escapist entertainment and showing their political colors; the former respond by saying that the only people who don’t think the “Trese” series is political are those who have never read it.
Alex Trese, the title character, is a detective, a figure who resembles closely the hardened, weary heroes of noir and the hardboiled mystery genre but for her guards, the playful and lethal sons of a war-god, and her kris-like weapon. She is very much a superhero, and such heroes have always been political, though her creators have never openly pushed any agenda. The history of comic books and superheroes is full of heroes going up against real-life enemies, like Jewish-created Superman ready to battle Hitler and Nazi sentiment, and Captain America doing the same.
Superheroes, to be sympathetic, must choose the side of the just and the good; to be interesting, they must fight battles that are unique to their milieu. “Trese” is very much a product of Filipino sensibilities. We cannot divorce the detective-hero Alex Trese from the fetid realities of her city. We cannot give her the gritty mean streets of Manila, with its urban legends and folklore, but whitewash the myriad problems that plague it—corruption, an easy disregard for human life, hunger, impunity. The “Trese” anime begins with the MRT breaking down. What is more relatable than that? But the Filipino everyman faces more than just public transport problems. The transport problems also don’t exist in isolation, but in a system used to not caring for the difficulties of “unimportant” folk.
In one story, Trese finds out that a squatter settlement has been burnt down and its occupants sacrificed to aswang for the motives of real estate moguls. In other stories, we see shady election practices, the cold indifference of authorities, poor Filipinos drowning in floodwaters while “the party continues for the privileged” who live in places too high for flooding. If we celebrate Trese as a modern-day Filipino hero, we should also acknowledge that she’s not just playing some cutesy game against made-up monsters. Her enemies are enemies not just because they are supernatural, but because they are violent, or corrupt, or evil, both humans and aswang alike, and such evil exists in the Manila of today. We don’t need to turn on Netflix to see it.
Raymond Chandler wrote that in everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. If there are political elements in what is quickly becoming a very popular anime adaptation, then good; the best of such art has always had a moral dimension. “Sometimes,” Captain Guerrero says to Trese at the end of one case, “I wish your dad put together a rule book about how this whole underworld works.”
“It’s quite simple, really,” Trese responds, betraying a quite simple moral code and motivation. “All those lessons about showing respect and helping others still apply.” If only today’s modern-day aswang could heed her.
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