They Were 11 is an interesting take on sci-fi anime from the eighties, and definitely a marked departure from the space operas overflowing from the previous decades and the wham-bam sci-fi actioners that defined the eighties. There is really only one action scene in the entire movie, and that’s a pie fight. Yet despite the dearth of robots on roller skates shooting cannons at each other, They Were 11 is an engaging, tense, and engrossing piece of science fiction that makes you feel like it’s action-packed even though it isn’t. The basic premise was derived from an old Japanese story about a group of children at a playground who suddenly realize that there is one more child there than there should be. There’s a good chance the extra kid, whichever one he may be, is some sort of monster.
Although They Were 11 falls pretty frequently into the classification of space opera, it’s really less of an opera and more of a space parlor mystery, the sort of thing you’d find on a British stage or an Agatha Christie book. It’s a potboiler. There’s plenty of the typically cool future tech we expect from eighties’ anime movies — lots of cool spaceships, laser guns, weird spores, and so forth, but the concentration is really on the characters. In They Were 11, we have a group of potential space cadets vying for coveted spots in the galaxy’s premiere space flight school. After passing a variety of tests, the cadets receive their final assignment: a group of ten are to board a derelict space craft, get it semi-operational again, and successfully staff and maintain it for a certain length of time. The only contact they will have with the outside world is via a panic button which, if pushed, will call in a rescue squad but also automatically fail everyone on board and disqualify them from obtaining entry to the academy.
Upon arriving at the ship, the cadets — who have never met one another — realize there are eleven people on board. The first assumption is that a simple administrative mistake has been made. Then it’s posited that this mysterious extra person is part of the test. But when the cadets discover bombs strewn about the old ship and begin to uncover its doomed past, a third possibility emerges: that the eleventh member of the team is a terrorist. Unwilling to forfeit their chances at passing the test by pressing the panic button, the eleven cadets split their time between trying to solve the mystery of what happened to the ship with trying to solve the mystery of who is the false member of the team. And then an explosion knocks the ship into a decaying orbit that causes the temperature to rise, which causes spores growing all over the ship to germinate and produce a deadly virus.
We’re told in the prologue of the film that rapid expansion throughout the galaxy has resulted in centuries of war between various planets and factions, and that the violence is only just now beginning to simmer down. So tensions are still strained between various races already. The fact that one of the cadets is potentially a saboteur only makes matters edgier. The story’s protagonist is the young Tada, an ace cadet with emerging telepathic powers that enable him to detect whether or not a person is lying. He runs this test on the rest of the cadets, but two problems immediately emerge. One, no one is lying when they say they aren’t the false member of the team; and two, since everyone but Tada (who can’t test himself) has been proven innocent, suspicion inevitably falls upon the young telepath. That he seems to have an intimate knowledge of various aspects of the derelict ship only deepens the suspicion of the others.
The other two strong personalities amongst the crew include the arrogant but not unlikable King Maya, the lavender-haired ruler of a planet who has submitted himself to the academy entrance exam in order to prove his worth as a leader, and Frol, a hermaphrodite who hails from a planet where your sex isn’t decided until later in your life, although there are still the usual stereotypes: men get all the glory, and women get to stay home and have babies. Frol is assigned to be a woman but isn’t looking forward to a life of meek servitude. Passing the entrance exam means she will get to reverse the decision of her planet elders and become a man. King leads the pack in being suspicious of Tada, while Frol emerges as the young man’s ally and potential crush, though the dual-gendered nature of Frol leads to some confusion for Tada.
Although there is very little action, there is plenty of tension in the story, and the movie is well-paced and smartly plotted. The whodunit nature is subverted somewhat by the fact that everyone can prove their innocence and no one is even sure if anything has been done to get all whodunit about. This is one of the rare instances when characters in a movie act and react and think in a way that actual people in a similar situation might act and react. And best of all, the plot keeps you guessing and serves up twists that you can’t really see coming but also make perfect sense when they happen. I really hate plot twists that make no sense at all and were thrown in simply because they would “catch you off guard.” For some reason, certain writers liken “you didn’t see that coming” to an idea actually being good when, in fact, it’s more akin to being sucker punched in the back of the head by a complete stranger while walking down the street. Just because you didn’t see it coming doesn’t mean it was good.
They Were 11 was directed by Satoshi Dezaki, listed sometimes as the brother of famed animation director Osamu Dezaki (last seen around these parts during our review of the touching romantic comedy Golgo 13). Other times, Satoshi is listed as a pseudonym for Osamu. I honestly have no idea which is correct. If Satoshi is a brother rather than a pseudonym, the influence of the elder Dezaki can be seen in the animation style. Although the cast is entirely male with the exception of Frol, there’s a definite feminine quality to many of the characters, chief among them the King Maya, who looks sort of like Edgar Winter. Osamu Dezaki sort of pioneered the frilly style of character design in his film Rose of Versailles, which is a direct influence on the yaoi (rhymes with zowie) trend in manga and anime that boasts high stylized and very feminine male character designs with flowing hair and long eyelashes and watery doe-eyes like in those old seventies paintings of waifs. They Were 11 does not fall into the realm of yaoi, even if the potential romance between Frol and Tada blurs the gender lines, but it would be remiss not to mention that there is a seed of that sort of character design that no doubt came from Osamu and infected Satoshi like one of those puffing spores in this movie.
The script was based on a comic by a writer named Moto Hagio, considered by some to be the mother of shojo (girls’) manga, but while They Were 11 does have an obviously more “feminine” touch in some ways, it’s hardly shojo — and in fact seems to go a long way to obscure the lines between “this is anime for boys, and this is anime for girls.” It’s feminine in the same way that Chor Yuen kungfu films are feminine. They’re still full of fights and cool characters. It’s just that from time to time, a swordsman in a white robe will drift across a misty river in a swan boat and give another swordsman a flower. You’re not going to argue with the swordsmen, because it’s Ti Lung and Yuen Hwa and they can fly and split people in half from fifty yards away, but there’s a certain delicacy and grace beneath the action. They Were 11 is to the bulk of otherwise macho, action-packed and violent sci-fi anime what Chu Yuan films are to the more macho, gorier films of Chang Cheh.
Frol’s predicament is handled in an interesting fashion. Either she become s a woman and acquiesces to a life of servitude, or she becomes a man and lives a rollicking life of sweeping space battles and Buffalo wings. In this is one of the key issues in analyzing the role of women in anime and action films. Anime, and in the nineties, action films, like to pat themselves on the back for providing audiences with a host of “strong” female characters who were more than capable of kicking ass. However, in an effort to move away from the “damsel in distress” stereotype, most of these movies just turned the women in men with boobs. There was nothing about them that was identifiably female. Rather than being strong women, they were characters who simply made gender interchangeable. And in the end, they were still fetishized.
What Chu Yuan did, and what Moto Haigo does with They Were 11 is eschew the testosterone-packed “action chick” fetish in favor of portraying women who are more identifiably female — which is ironic since Frol really isn’t a woman. They are different from men, react to things differently, and this is seen as a difference rather than a weakness. If action chicks are often little more than men with boobs, then Frol is literally a man with boobs. And she thinks that to lead any sort of an exciting life, she must, again quite literally, become a man. However, Haigo explores the unspoken third option for the character than no one ever thinks of: that she could lead an exciting life as a woman, and that she could oppose the submissive role of women in her society. Haigo’s story is an affirmation of the fact that you shouldn’t have to be a man to have fun, that women should have the same rights and access to adventure and beer as their male counterparts — something that still resonates today, embroiled as we are in a culture war in which entitled males are getting all pissy about the fact that women actually enjoy things like video games and comic books and action movies, too.
I don’t know if a male writer would have come up with the same solution, or even posed the problem in the same way, but it’s quite a complex issue that is tacked well by They Were 11 without ever becoming ham-fisted or stealing the focus away from the central mystery of who is the fake crew member and how do we prevent ourselves from all dying horrible deaths at the hands of fever-inducing space spores as our derelict spaceship plunges toward the atmosphere. The script for the movie was written by Toshiaki Imaizumi and Katsumi Koide. Neither had any real experience at the time of this production, and neither had much of a career after this movie (though they did collaborate again on Urusei Yatsura: Inaba the Dreammaker, the only other high profile credit for either screenwriter). They handle Moto Haigo’s source material perfectly though, and they should be commended for managing to take so many stylistic elements (space opera, mystery, action, shojo romance, a dash of yaoi) and strike the perfect balance between them.
This is by and large a sci-fi mystery film, but the shojo tendencies of the original author are allowed to underpin the action and give it an emotional depth absent from many other sci-fi films. At the same time, those tendencies toward romance and melodrama are kept securely in check and doled out only in tiny increments at just the right moment, allowing them to augment the central sci-fi style without overwhelming it. Their script is also expertly paced. It never hits a slow spot, but neither does it rush through details haphazardly. They know they have a delicious set-up, and they relish exploiting it without ever sinking to “monster lurking in the shadows” silliness or lapsing into drawn-out tedium. Everything is infused with a sense of unease and tension that propels the story along at exactly the right pace.
They Were 11 is a tight science fiction thriller that can be enjoyed without problem on a purely superficial level. If you are looking to dig deeper, then the movie gives you plenty to think about, including the aforementioned gender issues as well as the topics of xenophobia and international (or interplanetary, as the case may be) cooperation. Though it stops short of being profound, They Were 11 is a complex and thoughtful story wrapped up inside a smashing good sci-fi yarn.