Teenage psychic Tada Lane (voiced by Akira Kamiya) is among ten cadets from the Cosmo Academy sent into outer space for their end-of-course test. Their assignment: to take command of an old spaceship and survive fifty-three days without outside help. Should the going get tough any one of them has the option to give up and push the emergency button, but if they do so all cadets automatically fail. However, the cadets are immediately unnerved to discover there are eleven people on board. One of them is an imposter and while they don’t know who, neither can they contact the academy to find out if this is part of the test or whether there is a saboteur in their midst. No-nonsense, blue-haired bishonen King Mayan (Hideyuki Tanaka) takes charge as the cadets identify themselves. Aside from the revelation that cadet Knu (Norio Wakamoto) is a green-gilled alien, the biggest shock for the all-male crew is that Frol (Michiko Kawai) is - gasp! - a sexy blonde babe though she claims to detest girls and doesn’t want to be treated as one. Tensions flair as the mission grows increasingly perilous and fingers of suspicion are pointed at the hapless Tada.
An intelligent, suspenseful space thriller rather than the sort of slam-bang action epic most casual viewers expect from anime, They Were Eleven was adapted from the fine manga by groundbreaking writer-artist Moto Hagio. Hagio was one of the so-called Show 24 group, a name bestowed upon a generation of female manga creators who collectively redefined the form with a distinctively baroque art style that visualised the psychological worlds of their characters and emphasised existential themes. Many of these women were drawn to the horror and science fiction genres to which they brought a refreshingly humane perspective whilst delivering the kind of thrills and chills young male readers would expect from a boys’ manga.
With its character-driven approach, They Were Eleven evokes the cerebral Russian science fiction of the Soviet era, e.g. Test Pilot Pirx (1978) or To the Stars by Hard Ways (1981), but also prefigures more visceral anime with similar strangers-trapped-in-a-strange-situation conceit such as the remarkable King of Thorn (2009). Gripping, thought-provoking yet agreeably fast-paced, the film is also quintessentially Japanese in its preoccupation with dissecting a fraught social milieu with an emphasis on the need for cooperation and harmony. In classic mystery fashion, every character has a secret to hide but the plot repeatedly stresses the only way these mismatched misfits can get through the experience is by learning how to trust each other. Sparks fly between the placid but kindly Tada and the feisty Frol in a refreshing reversal of traditional gender roles as Hagio ensure the most outspoken and assertive character aboard the ship is a woman.
However, in keeping with shojo (girls) manga’s preoccupation with homoerotic themes, a neat twist reveals Frol hails from a planet whose inhabitants are gender neutral until they reach maturity. By passing the test, Frol hopes to win the right to become a man which is of great importance given she comes from a male-dominated society where women are considered little beyond decorative. While colourful the chara designs don’t quite do full justice Hagio’s vivid artwork but the film does not suffer from condensing the manga. Flashbacks intermingle with psychic revelations as it dawns on Tada he has been on this spaceship before. The suspense is nicely sustained but leavened with welcome humour including one scene where the youngsters settle their differences with a cathartic food fight. Stuck-up King Mayan gets repeatedly pelted in the face with custard pies. The climax is truly uplifting in its analysis of what constitutes real character. Somewhat surprisingly the end credits mimic American Graffiti (1973) revealing what happened to the characters after graduation.