Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Eleventh Striker


"Hey! We have one person too many!"
"They Were Eleven!"

A few weeks back, I reviewed Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, a seminal work on the history of the mystery manga genre in Japan, clearly showing how the genre evolved through an incredibly extensive look at mystery manga publications from the post-war period until the present. With over 800 different titles mentioned in the book, there were a lot I had never ever heard of, and want-to-read lists were quickly made of course. While the book obviously focused on mystery manga, as is: mystery fiction in the form of manga, the book also name-dropped some titles that aren't mainly mystery fiction, but that were still closely related to either the genre, or the development of the genre. It shouldn't surprise the reader very much that there were also thriller and horror titles dropped here and there that also had an influence on artists or series.

Still, I have to admit that there were still a few titles that were mentioned that I certainly hadn't expected in a book on mystery manga. 11-nin Iru! ("They Were Eleven!") was perhaps the title that surprised me the most. Fans of classic manga and anime might have heard of this title, and even if not, no manga-reading fan with an ounce of self-respect would ever dare admit to not have heard of its creator: Hagio Moto. Hagio is considered one of the most influential female mangaka, being a pioneer in shojo (girls) manga, the Boys' Love genre and science-fiction manga in the 70s and 80s. It's not even an exaggeration to state that modern manga as an art form would've looked quite differently if not for Hagio's work. My knowledge of her was perhaps why I was so surprised to see 11-nin Iru! mentioned in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar. I knew Hagio had also worked on series like Poe no Ichizoku ("The Poe Clan"), which incorporates horror and mystery genre elements, but in my mind, she was especially the pioneer on shojo and science-fiction manga, and I knew that 11-nin Iru! was one of her most well-appreciated science-fiction series. The three-part manga mini-series won her the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1976 and is widely seen as a science-fiction classic. Turns out that it was also built on a classic mystery structure.

A theatrical animated movie adaptation titled 11-nin Iru! ("They Were Eleven!") was released in 1986, which is mostly faithful to the source material. Warp travelling has become possible in the future, expanding the world of the humans. In mere 200 years, humans colonized over 50 planets, but they also came in contact with other civilizations in outer space. Earth, or Terra, is now part of a space alliance with three other allies, which is also head of the prestigious Space Academy. Becoming a cadet there means a glorious future and also prestige back home, so many, many try, but only a miniscule fraction of the candidates is accepted in the school. As the final test in the entrance exam, ten candidates are sent to a decommisioned spaceship: if they can survive for 53 days on that ship all on their own, they will be accepted as new cadets of the Academy. Any problems they come across they will have to solve together, with no contact with the outside world. If overcome by an obstacle they can not solve themselves, it is possible for them to contact the academy for help, but that also means forfeiting the exam. For the ten candidates who have been dreaming all their life about getting into the academy, spending not even three months on a spaceship seems doable, but there is one little problem: when the candidates left for the spaceship all donned in face-hiding spacesuits, there were definitely only ten of them, but when they arrived in the spaceship, they were eleven! Who is the eleventh candidate and what are they doing on the ship?

As I mentioned earlier, I already knew about 11-nin Iru!, at least, I knew it existed and that it was critically very well received,  but I had always thought it was a science-fiction story that focused on human drama, a mode that is strongly associated with Hagio. And in a way that's right. 11-nin Iru! is precisely that, but it utilizes a rather alluring mystery story structure to tell its story. The idea of suddenly having an eleventh crew member along is incredibly creepy, and as the ten (eleven) candidates never got a good look at each other until their arrival inside the spaceship, there is no way for any of them to know who is the eleventh wheel. Because the candidates don't want to give up on their exam, they don't want to contact the school, leaving them in a self-inflicted closed circle situation, cooped up in an abandoned spaceship with one person who shouldn't be there of whom the motives are unknown. Unlike something like And Then There Were None, the candidates aren't killed one by one, though accidents that might not be accidents do happen a few times and we also learn that not everyone is exactly who they appear to be at first, with hidden pasts for several characters, so as the story progresses, everybody does start to grow suspicious of each other, until it reaches boiling point.

Or to be precise: 40 degrees Celsius. It also happens that a poisonous plant has grown throughout the ship, which releases its toxic pollens at the temperature of 40 degrees Celsius. The climate inside the ship can normally be controlled of course, but bombs set off the moment the crew arrived at the ship not only messed the computers up, but also sent the ship in an orbit moving them closer to the nearby blue sun, edging the inside temperature slowly but surely towards 40 degrees. This combined with the growing tension surrounding the identity of the eleventh crew member makes 11-nin Iru! a rather thrilling view from start to finish.

But I have to reiterate that 11-nin Iru! isn't formally a mystery story, or at least, not a fair one. For those who want to have a fair shake at figuring out who the eleventh crew member is: you'll be disappointed as there's no proper logical process behind this story, complete with hints and clues, that allow you to deduce who the extra person is. At the end, the eleventh person more or less simply confesses to being it. The motive for the presence of the eleventh crew member is better, but again, not really telegraphed in a fair way towards the viewer. How the parallel storyline regarding the poisonous plants is eventually resolved is funnily enough telegraphed much better than the storyline of the eleventh passenger, and reminds of the climax scenes of the Detective Conan films, where Conan usually has to figure some way of escape, in a way that is always properly hinted at. Of course, I could've guessed that 11-nin Iru! wasn't likely to be a full out original mystery puzzler with clues and stuff, as they were quite rare back then, as shown in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar.

11-nin Iru! is overall a science-fiction story that uses a mystery story structure to portray an interesting cast, who have all entered the Space Academy entrance exams for their own reasons. The varied casts allows for the story to take on human drama, romance and comedy themes with ease, as well as the aforementioned mystery element, and 11-nin Iru! manages to present an amusing and diverse story through its shifting tone, yet it always feels as one consistent tale. As a not particularly long story (about 90 minutes), 11-nin Iru! is a neatly concise story that does most of what it wants to do in an adequate way, resulting in a good science-fiction movie that leans on the mystery genre.

I haven't read the original three-part manga, so I don't know whether the mystery element is stronger in that format or not, but overall, I enjoyed 11-nin Iru!, even if it was not precisely what I had expected. The really alluring premise had me hoping for a true closed circle mystery, and with a bit of better hinting, 11-nin Iru! could've become that, I think, but as it is now, I'd say that 11-Nin Iru! is a good science-fiction thriller that comes very close to also being a good mystery film, but just doesn't quite manage to do it. I'd love to see a new movie adaptation of this story that would try to sell it more as a puzzle plot mystery!

Original Japanese title(s): 『11人いる!』


  1. Hate to nitpick, but... Celsius, not Celcius.

    1. And that's why I should never write posts late at night while watching movies.