‘First Slam Dunk’ Reinvents the Game

Takehiko Inoue’s The First Slam Dunk is a tale as old as time: a high school basketball team full of misfits try to overcome each other’s differences and their own personal demons as they prepare for a game against an undefeated team. This is certainly a story that Inoue himself has told at length through his manga Slam Dunk that ran in “Weekly Shonen Jump” through 1990 and 1996, along with an anime series. Now, nearly 30 years later, Inoue gets to revisit his world for his feature film directorial debut. It must be a surreal experience, getting to return to your source material after decades and recreate it for a whole new audience. It worked out, because The First Slam Dunk is an absolute triumph.

On the outset, The First Slam Dunk follows a fairly traditional underdog story. But Inoue wisely uses the tropes found in the sports genre to literally reinvent the game, creating a visually ambitious and emotionally layered story about brotherhood, enduring hardship, and found family. Rather than build up to the big game and grow accustomed to our players, the movie instead dribbles between the past and present, often across players from both teams. What could be seen as a pace-breaker is instead used in the story’s favor, cutting back and forth from the game as we see just how emotionally invested our characters are in. We begin with a seemingly normal game against the national champions Sannoh, but through the course of the movie through its sharp use of flashbacks, we see just how important the game is to the whole team, raising the emotional stakes every minute.

Likeso, in a surprise turn, the movie focuses on point-guard Miyagi for Shohoku High School, who was never much of a major character in the manga series. But it makes sense to make him more of a key focus here; point-guards are arguably the most important players in basketball, running through the court and passing the ball to other players. While all the players get arcs and development, Miyagi’s story is much more emotionally dynamic, as it’s revealed he’s living in the shadow of his dead older brother, a basketball prodigy, and his mother quietly bearing the loss of her son and won’t even acknowledge Miyagi. Plus, since Miyagi didn’t have much of an arc in the manga, it’s possible Inoue wanted a character for audiences to latch onto without the unreasonable baggage of reading 31 volumes and thousands of pages to learn the characters and just wanted  basketball anime, reading the manga or watching the anime after the fact if they choose to. Either way, it completely works and makes for a highly emotionally resonant film.

But even if Miyagi bears a lot of the movie’s focus, the other players of the game are so well-refined and written so gorgeously that it still feels like they got equal amounts of development. I was fully brought into their dynamics and goals; same can be said for their opposing team, where it suggests that even they have something personal at stake if they lose. Really, it’s just one of the best sports movies out there; a transcendently animated movie that showcases the beauty and intensity of basketball while still having some emotional gut-punches sprinkled about.

Speaking of the animation, it took a while for me to grasp onto it; as far as I know, the film incorporates mostly rotoscope animation, which is a form of animation where they trace over motion (either CGI or full-motion-video) to try and create seamless and lifelike traditional animation. This is really just used to accurately capture the movement and intensity of basketball on-screen, but in the slower moments it can get a little jarring at first. I was worried the whole movie was going to be as jittery-looking as the first scene presented itself being, but as I watched the first basketball scene unfold, I knew I was placed in good hands. 

The fluid movement of characters racing across the court, the basketball shooting around like a cannonball, sweat raining down from the players’ bodies… it’s all just so beautiful. The movie is just so expressive and easy to follow that one could easily watch it in complete silence, but they’d be missing out on some of the best sound design and music in years. The stellar sound design makes the basketball game feel all the more real, with sneakers squeaking against the floor, the sound of the dribbling basketball, the cheers of the crowd – this is as exciting as one can get. There is, of course, the exceptional soundtrack by 10-FEET and Satoshi Takebe, which only adds to the adrenaline of the action on-screen. It only takes a simple head-banging rock soundtrack to make something as exciting as one can get.

In a couple words, First Slam Dunk is pure poetry. An irresistible crowd-pleaser and quite possibly one of the best anime movies of all-time. An anime hasn’t knocked my socks off quite like this since the likes of Redline, which I feel are both comparable landmarks in animation. With its rich characters, sublime animation, emotional weight, and breathtaking sound, First Slam Dunk is undiluted happiness. The only way you don’t get something out of this movie is if you’re not someone capable of human emotions.

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