Now for that age old question… what do you want to be when you grow up? The more appropriate version I would say is… when you mature what identity, or role, will you tie your life towards. For a group of young students in a far off sci-fi future these questions amongst many others will be answered as they learn to live with each other and understand what is important and true for themselves. In 1986, these students were the focus of a feature film by the name of They Were 11.
Imagine having to pass a final exam as if your life was on the line, literally! Groupings of ten students have to board spaceships and survive on what is available and solve any problems without guidance. If you need to call for help, even just once, you have to forfeit the idea of graduation. As the story begins we have an immediate problem. This group of ten students we will be with during the story numbers one more. We have eleven students instead of ten, which means one of them is either a stow a way, an imposter and maybe even a threat. Who can it be? Everyone seems to be a suspect, yet all of them have legitimate reasons for being part of this final test. As the story unfolds, the drama grows as problems and issues ensue and trust becomes difficult between these eleven as one of them seems to intuitively understand the ship and certain circumstances better than the rest of the group. This would be enough for any other tale, but They Were 11 has even more to tell.
The eleven students all come from different backgrounds. Many of them come from royalty, or well to do families and are in school to essentially follow their family’s traditions. These students are locked into their own paradigms and don’t have much choice for their lives. Tada, one of our main protagonists, is an exception as he is a highly gifted young man from a modest background and is making his way based on his talents instead of his lineage. Add to this, Tada begins to awaken to esper and psychic abilities, plus repressed memories from his childhood, that makes him quite suspect to the others. Frol, our other primary protagonist, is a young feminine androgyne who desperately wants to fit in and be one of the boys due to male privilege and freedom. Frol’s questioning of gender is the other major focus of They Were 11 as Frol comes to terms with the fact that in heart, soul and body a woman she is meant to be. A relationship soon develops between both Tada and Frol as they both share each other’s company, ideas and struggles.
So many times space opera is a showdown of spaceships, laser beams, battle tactics and macho bravado, or perhaps, stern military seriousness. Many examples can follow these traits and do it successfully, but They Were 11 goes against this trend. Instead we have a story about relationship, characterization, love and sacrifice set in a future outer space environment. Sounds more like a shojo type of story than the usual shonen/seinen and by jove it is; one of my all time favorite’s of the designation. Instead of the bombast of say a full symphony orchestra, we have a string quartet. And though the size is smaller in scale, the power behind the meaning being expressed may be a little more intense. This is space opera treated as traditional drama for the stage; They Were 11 is dramatic theater, a play, set to animation.
They Were 11 tackles many difficult issues and does it all with grace and dignity. The original manga was the creation of one the best from the Year 24 Group, Moto Hagio, a woman who I have heard was the female equivalent to the great Osamu Tezuka. They Were 11 is a story that represents themes of self discovery and aspiring not to become someone, but to embrace an inner truth in ourselves that only we know to be correct. In a year that saw the release of Studio Ghibli’s first film Castle in the Sky and one of my all time favorite’s Windaria, They Were 11 represents a true dark horse that deserves more attention and recognition; an awesome and inspiring movie.