Born first as a manga series that ran from 1990 – 1996 under the title Slam Dunk, the creation of Takehiko Inoue has been adapted for television, film, and video games since its debut. The series ran in Shueisha’s Weekly Shōnen Jump, the same place that currently popular series like One Piece and My Hero Academia found their footing before going Plus Ultra. Now, Inoue adapts his world in a brand-new feature film, The First Slam Dunk, which first premiered in Japan in December 2022 and is currently enjoying a slow international rollout, including the Fantasia International Film Festival.
It’s game day and underdog Shohoku High School is up against “the unstoppable” Sannoh High School, battling it out for the championship. No one expects Shohoku to put up any kind of fight, yet teammates Ryota (voiced by Shugo Nakamura), Sakuragi (voiced by Subaru Kimura), Rukawa (voiced by Shinichiro Kamio), Akagi (Kenta Miyake), and Mitsui (Jun Kasama) are playing for more than the love of the game. Each dribble, each pass, each chance at a shot puts these five athletes one step closer to their goals, forcing Sannoh not to underestimate their foe.
Even if you weren’t aware that First Slam Dunk is adapted from a manga, the visual style leans toward it. The characters are a composite of hard and soft lines, given depth to give the impression of physicality within a 2D setting. Though it’s entirely CG, there remains a quality of something made by hand, adding a sense of realism that today’s computer-generated animation doesn’t always provide. For a recent comparison, look to fellow GKids Films releases Unicorn Wars (2022), which used software Blender for its Grease Pencil tool allowing for its 2D look within the 3D space – against BELLE (2021) or Promare (2019) which incorporate far more 3D techniques to bring their imaginative worlds to life. By remaining true to the visual style of the manga, there’s less distance for the audience to travel in order to understand these characters and what drives them. It also enables the comparatively small stakes to transform into something enormous as each of the characters given any kind of focus evolve from numbers and positions on a basketball court to warriors. But if you were not to realize it, there are several moments in the film in which the cinematography conveys a sense of bringing literal page frames to life. In the frankly heroically staged introduction to the five Shohoku players, each one appears via an invisible hand drawing them as they stride forward, each one sliding or shifting over and another joins them. You don’t need to know where First Slam Dunk came from to appreciate this stylistic choice, but it helps to appreciate the execution.
An interesting narrative structure the film takes is after a brief introduction of Ryota and his older brother and their shared love of basketball, the shift to the basketball game indicates that the prelude we were shown is the past and this is the present. Those who have seen For the Love of the Game (1999) will notice a similarity in what follows as the game progresses — each side jockeying for position and momentum with memories spilling out, presenting them as vignettes before us. The bulk of them are centered on Ryota, but the flashbacks eventually do make room for the other players. There’s a version of this film told chronologically, but there’s not enough there to make that work, thereby making the utilized structure the most proficient and, thankfully, investing. We get enough about who these people are and their relationships to each other based on how they play, communicate (or not), and view their shared goal and the responsibilities each hold to achieve it. More often than not, the flashbacks serve to provide specificity as to how each ended up on the team, which possesses its own drawbacks (which will be explored in a moment). Yet, one can’t help but audibly reacting to the game as it plays out: the missed shots, the fouls, the fast breaks you don’t see coming, and the fake outs you just can’t predict. As the two teams battle it out on the court, no matter how one feels about the sport (I, personally have zero interest in it), through the structure of the narrative, you will get swept up in the building pressure, elated by the successes, and on the edge of your seat by the missteps. These may be animated characters, but there’s one out-of-bounds moment that elicited a reflexive gasp and shout that thankfully didn’t wake my sleeping child on the other side of the viewing room wall. A certain amount of excitement does come from the performances from the voice actors, but one cannot discount the visual style, cinematography, and direction that makes first slam dunk as exciting as the last.
Going into First Slam Dunk having not read the series or explored any of the preexisting material, one can enjoy the film as both a sports dramedy and a character piece. However, the execution of the narrative doesn’t achieve the heft it seeks to create because so much of the narrative is focused on Ryota’s story that the other four players aren’t as well explored. The film does try to offer something on each one, even going so far as to provide insight into the central player on the Sannoh team just because he’s the same age as Ryota. This results in some unevenness in the flow of the narrative as it stops the action of the game in order to jump backward in time to get character insight. This is likely less of an issue in the source material given the amount of time the manga took to tell its full story versus the two hours here. The film is far more successful when centered on Ryota due to the depth it gives us on the character and his motivation, whereas the attempts at digging into others feel underdeveloped when trying to answer questions off the court that are more easily explored on.
Despite the sense that we don’t know all the characters as well as the film would like us to, The First Slam Dunk delivers on the sports excitement and the interpersonal drama that sports film fans clamor for. If you enjoyed recent releases like Hustle (2022) and The Way Back (2020), then First Slam Dunk will feel designed just for you. As such, the shortcomings fade away, instilling excitement and curiosity along the way. So much so that the David vs. Goliath feeling of the Shohoku vs. Sannoh face-off gives way to a sensation of disinterest in whomever wins as the battle itself is worthy of the attendance.
Screening during Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.
In U.S. and Canadian theaters July 28th, 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.