They Were Eleven versus Rokka no Yuusha

The Japanese cover.

While googling around for information on Rokka no Yuusha when I was writing my recent blogpost, I noticed a certain comic being mentioned several times: 11-nin Iru! by Hagio Moto. Or They Were Eleven in English. I’d heard of the title before, but since it’s a shoujo manga from the 70s, my interest in reading it was low. However, feeling curious after reading Rokka, I finally decided to check it out. It has been translated and printed by Viz as a part of an anthology called Four Shoujo Stories, published in 1996. It’s obviously out of print, but I’m sure you can find the scans floating around. There’s also an animated film from 1986 based on it. I, however, decided to buy the recent Polish edition. So, what is this piece of old-ass shoujo-science fiction like?

Distant future. The space era. The entrance exam into the elite Cosmic Academy is underway. However, after the examinees finish its written part, they’re suddenly informed that the most important part of the exam is still before them. They’re told they will be divided into groups of ten. The group of men who performed best on the exam are sent off to a drifting abandoned spaceship with the objective of surviving fifty three days there without contacting the outer world. Upon arrival, they’re welcomed by a one-sided message from the examiners. They’re given the option to press a red button to prematurely end this “exam” in case of emergency – that’s the only way to send out a message to the trial’s supervisors. The exam reeks of ill intentions towards the cadets. What if somebody dies? I guess the examiners would be like “Oh I guess he wasn’t good enough to pass the trial. Next!”

After entering the spaceship, the cadets realize, shocked, that there’s eleven of them. Sounds familiar? The examinees might act confused about the situation they found themselves in, but… What’s the big deal? So there’s eleven of you. So what? Whether it’s the organizers’ misstep, the Eleventh’s unwelcome intrusion, or an intentional part of the exam, all of you will have to survive. That’s what I was thinking. It seemed to me like the author wanted to create drama where there was little reason for it. After the initial turmoil, there’s some time to introduce the characters. Tadatos Lane, a person with some low-level psychic powers, assumes the role of the protagonist. Following him around and being tsundere all the time is a girly dude named Frol – as expected of shoujo manga. There’s also a king of some planet, his highborn friend, a scaly-faced alien, a burly engineer, a soldier with a weird head… Since the story is set in a closed environment where the conditions the eleven examinees must stomach are slowly getting worse, of course some sinister incidents happen. There’s explosions all over the spacecraft. Somebody gets electrocuted while exploring the ship. Somebody finds a hidden crate of guns. Weird Head lies to try out the protag’s powers. Frol’s personality makes him try to pick a fight with everyone over trivial bullshit. Red herrings, lying there to make you suspect someone, are omnipresent. And then, the blame game starts. Both the characters and the reader is invited to consider every suspicious detail and ask themselves the question of “Who’s the saboteur?”. “Is there a saboteur at all?”. “Why is he doing it?”.

Meanwhile, all the characters reject the idea of pressing the red button. And each time they’re like “Should we? Nah.”, I suspect whoever said it of being the Eleventh, the crew member in charge of trying to kill the others. After the story was done conveying its general framework to me, I couldn’t help but think: “Whoever the Eleventh is (because does it even matter?), ultimately, the Big Bad in They Were Eleven will be the examiners – there’s no way around it”. It’s their utterly irresponsible behavior that caused this mess in the first place. The question to ask should be “How much of this is their evil plan, and how much happened accidentally”. And so, my interest in knowing the solution to the riddle was only decreasing as the story progressed. Oh and did I mention that Frol is from a genderless race who gets to pick a gender upon entering adulthood? Shoujo manga.

Later into the story, it turns out the explosions pushed the spacecraft off its orbit and made it start spiraling in the direction of the sun. Temperature inside the ship is rising, and some plants inside are starting to release poisonous spores in the heat… The mental pressure on the crewmembers is rising and eventually, King grabs a gun and starts chasing Tadatos Lane, blaming him for this pandemonium. The “who’s the Eleventh” business is only an excuse for the examinees to throw themselves at each other, guns blazing, at this point. Then, Ganga the engineer… announces that he’s the Eleventh.
And thus They Were Eleven quits being a mystery, tens of pages before the end of the story. Frol says “It doesn’t matter who the Eleventh is!”, showing that at least the author was smart enough to know what the reader knew from the very beginning. Later, the protag manages to get the ship out of its drift towards’s the sun’s surface just in the right moment. Still, it turns out that Frol is sick because of the spores and might die in a few days.

To end their suffering, the crew finally decides to press the red button – several days before the deadline. A rescue ships arrives and it turns out Ganga lied. Poor dude just wanted this torture to end. It was Weird Head, always lurking somewhere beyond the frame, who was the Eleventh. And of course it was the examiners who entrusted him with that role: he was supposed to intentionally yank the rug from under the cadets’ legs (he even had telepathic powers to help him do that!) to make the trial harder. Every ten-person crew of examinees was assigned an Eleventh, a saboteur. And supposedly he was obliged to prevent people from dying, but he never so much as moved a finger everytime something awful was happening. In his defense: he didn’t do much to harm his fellow crewmen either. Most of the dangerous stuff that happened was accidental. The examinees are then informed that none of the crews resisted pressing the red button (no surprises here) and that they – the first, most competent crew – survived the longest, therefore their exam counts as passed. They’re also told that they should be proud of themselves for not pressing the button for so long – that prioritizing the exam over their lives was the right thing to do, and the other crews should feel ashamed of “giving up”. Oh and the examiners didn’t do anything wrong by forcing the cadets into those cruel trials. They need strong, competent personel, after all. The comic ends, wanting me to feel catharsis: the characters passed the difficult ordeal and are now on their way to fulfill their dreams. Hooray. I’m sorry, but I’m too disgusted to feel any catharsis.

I won’t mince words: They Were Eleven is a baffling piece of old-school comics, not even comparable to the excellence that is Rokka no Yuusha. The story of the Braves of the Six Flowers stays a well-rounded, convincing mystery to the very end. And it makes sense to the very end – you never have doubts if the fundamental assumptions at the base of the
narrative are even logical. I’m pretty sure Yamagata Ishio knew this story – Nashetania even says “Shichinin… iru!” at the key point of the novel. I can only congratulate him for creating such a vastly superior version of this ancient story. I wouldn’t be too harsh on this comic though. It’s entertaining. It’s a damn mystery. Go read it, it’s only 125
long. Don’t read the sequel, though. It sucks.

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