They Were Eleven

July 22, 2004 on 11:12 am | In They Were Eleven | Comments Off on They Were Eleven

This 4:3 film from 1987 is one quiet, tense journey. Its isolation both in plot and property make it a true standout.

The final test to get into Cosmo Academy is to man a ship for 53 days without contacting the academy for help. On each of these ships, ten cadets are deployed. However, on the ship that this story is set on, They Were Eleven. Is it a mistake? Is it part of the test? Is it sabotage? There’s no way of knowing without failing – and if one member fails, they all fail. The presented hero of the story, Tada, has an ability that lets him know when others are lying. However, upon testing everyone, they’re all telling the truth. Naturally, this leads to the suspicion being turned on him, particularly as he seems to know precisely where everything is on the ship. Suspicions flare as the days wear on as no one trusts anyone else but everyone wants to pass the test and be accepted into the academy.
The Esperanza, the ship that the ten were chosen to man, becomes a democracy led by King (not just a nickname). There are no major decisions made without a vote being passed. As a result there’s order in what would otherwise have been total chaos, despite King’s arrogant, untrusting and domineering manner.
Somehow the team still manages to carry on regardless because it’s still a once in three years chance and the odds of them having gotten in in the first place were astronomical. Seeing the friendships form alongside the veneer of paranoia, so each character has a dual nature: as part of the group, and as desperate individual.
When later problems occur that force everyone to work as a team, the dynamic is stretched to its snapping point.

They Were Eleven offers a great mixture of characters and tension; if some revelations seem a bit anti-climactic and disappointing, it’s because they are. A couple of dead ends and red herrings are added to the mix to keep things interesting, and this almost never stops. There’s suspicion at every turn, and only one real scene where the characters forget themselves and try to have fun; oddly enough, a food fight is where the characters cut loose. The most hilarious line (admittedly, among very few funny lines) comes from the totally straight “man” Knu, who reasons that it is destiny to receive a pie to the face. There are other nice moments when the characters let their guards down and talk about their backgrounds
Tada is the focus of the story probably because it’s nice to show something from the suspect’s perspective; it’s interesting that he never questions whether he is actually the eleventh. Because really, the eleventh should be anyone. No real hints are given along the way to the identity. When it’s revealed at the end it makes sense, but it was too tight to be extremely obvious.
With eleven main characters, it would be difficult to give them all significant focus and a lot of screen time, but enough is granted to each without seeming clumsy or contrived. In normal circumstances, this would actually be a highly effective team.

This anime was produced by the dynamic team who brought us Blackjack, director Dezaki Osamu (here credited as Dezaki Tetsu – but the package seems to be riddled with crew errors) and character designer Sugino Akio. Amazingly, this is based on shoujo manga. Everyone’s just that little bit pretty, except for the really ugly ones (Rednose, for example). Dezaki applies his usual creative visual approach to the project (no matte, though), with unnatural light focus to emphasise the characters’ isolation and suspicion. Tada may have a weird hairstyle, but this is always interesting to watch.

The cast are fairly well chosen to play this suspicious lot, and Kamiya Akira is notable for playing a comparatively weak character in Tada; his roles are generally those of the self assured. Kawai Michiko is fairly flat as Frol, but that’s fine given the character’s ambiguities. The fiery personality and constant confrontations and very rough nature of Frol’s language makes her quite a character. So Kawai is flat in a good way. TARAKO also makes an appearance, cementing her fame as one of the best bit players of the eighties (she was credited in practically all of the Studio Ghibli films of the era in some capacity).
There’s a particularly good panic sequence where some characters desperately plead “We don’t have any more mice!”, one of the most dramatic in the film.
The music is equal parts suspence and science-fiction, representative of the great science-fiction music that only the eighties could produce.

They Were Eleven is tight and well produced, with one character that you’ll wish was the eleventh just so that they can shoot him. But they can’t, and you won’t know until the end just who shouldn’t be there. It’s not all about the mystery and is given some time to breathe, then some time to panic about other things. A class act all the way.

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