A relaunch of ’90s sports anime and manga series Slam Dunk, the new theatrical release The First Slam Dunk—which opened New York’s Japan Cuts festival and hits North American cinemas this week—is at once an expansion of manga artist Inoue Takehiko’s original story, as well as a major tonal departure that works as a standalone film (with a new voice cast to boot). The original Slam Dunk show, about boisterous, red-haired “basketball genius” Sakuragi Hanamichi, was an absurd stylistic send-up of anime action with a distinctly adolescent, shōnen spirit. It spawned four spin-off short films during its 1993-96 run, each touching on events and character arcs only hinted at in the TV and comic material. The First Slam Dunk functions similarly, though it runs two hours in length and shifts the narrative focus from power-forward Hanamichi to his point-guard best friend, the lightning quick Miyagi Ryota (Nakamura Shūgo), whose backstory is broadly sketched in the anime and manga, but forms the tragic backbone of this cinematic revival, which succeeds at the herculean task of translating grief into pulsating action.
Both the manga and anime concluded in 1996, but Inoue—whose involvement in the previous films was limited to writing—takes the reins entirely this time around, marking his directorial debut with some intriguing stylistic updates. Gone are the anime and manga’s tongue-in-cheek ’80s action silhouettes, the comically broad shoulders and the enormous coiffed hair. They’re replaced instead by Ebara Yasuyuki’s more modern and grounded designs, which grant the characters a sense of grounded, lived-in teenage presence—not to mention, contemporary hairstyles!—in tandem with a 3DCG update, which sees computer-generated images (often rotoscoped atop the movements of real-life basketball players) complimenting the originals’ hand-drawn, 2D motion. Little about its appearance and texture resembles Slam Dunk in any way, but that’s hardly worth complaining about with Inoue himself at the helm, thoughtfully expanding on minor story details, and extrapolating from them fully formed, emotionally hard-hitting memories.
For the most part, all that was known about Ryota prior to this film was that he lived in the shadow of his deceased older brother Sota, an accomplished basketball player whose red wristband he wore as a memento. However, where his motives on the court were once boiled down to impressing a girl, he now lives with the burden of his brother’s mysterious demise (and some unresolved survivor’s guilt in the aftermath), which acts equally as motivation and hurdle. His rag-tag Shohoku High School team may be up against their nigh unbeatable rivals, Sannoh, but what makes Ryota’s story compelling is that his biggest motivation and his primary antagonist are the very same internal and emotional forces. His battle on the court is part of a larger war with himself.
By opening in the past and laying the foundation of Ryota’s childhood...the movie grants equal weight to the past and present; the game could just as well be a series of flash-forwards informed by Ryota’s childhood experiences.
While sports animes and movies tend to conform to familiar structures, with scenes of training followed by an eventual contest, The First Slam Dunk takes an unconventional approach, framing Ryota’s story as a series of flashbacks unfolding during the pivotal Sannoh game. In fact, by opening in the past and laying the foundation of Ryota’s childhood—his home and family life, and of course, his complicated relationship with his brother—the movie grants equal weight to the past and present; the game could just as well be a series of flash-forwards informed by Ryota’s childhood experiences. The difference may be semantic on its surface, but in terms of cinematic language, the result is a film in which the past and present live side by side, separated by a thin membrane of light (the screen often adopts ethereal qualities, with bright flashes that draw the viewer into memories, whose sense of powerful luminescence never fades).
The physical and emotional details of Ryota’s grief are vital narrative linchpins, between the secrets he and Sota shared—a hidden cave near their picturesque beachside home in Okinawa hides basketball trinkets, to which only the two of them are privy—and the way Sota’s disappearance drew a wedge between Ryota and his mother, causing petty but devastating fights over what to do with Sota’s belongings. It’s a stunningly affecting depiction of the ways in which grief can manifest when there’s no closure to be found, latching onto physical objects in lieu of physical remains that one can mourn.
With this emotional baseline established firmly and early on, The First Slam Dunk allows its sporting sections to unfold with panache. The CG-animation affords Inoue the opportunity to create and capture motion in a manner pencil and paper could not, with the frame turning, zipping and charging between bodies in ways that capture, at once, the enormousness and intimacy of a team sport in close contact. Just as important to the narrative as Ryota’s past is his dynamic with his teammates, primarily the strong but bumbling Hanamichi (Kimura Subaru)—who retains the original main character’s comedic flair—as well as rival-turned-uneasy-ally Mitsui Hisashi (Kasama Jun), whose past relationship with Ryota forms equally vivid and vital flashbacks as the loss of Sota.
The Shohoku team, in their iconic red, retain their sense of physical individuality from the series, which Ebara ensures isn’t lost among the film’s naturalistic remixing, while their rivals, the white-clad Sannoh, are largely indistinguishable from one another. Since both teams are granted a sense of familiar physicality, between their distinctly human movements and the way they sweat and huff, this homogeneity serves a dual purpose: it de-personalizes the Sannoh team members in a way, keeping the viewers’ empathy firmly locked on Shohoku, but it also magnifies their fearsome single-minded coordination. Ryota and the rest of Shohoku, on the other hand, have trouble getting along and coming together as a team. In a sense, the characters are so easily distinguishable and well-designed that this, too, becomes a hurdle. However, their individuality is never framed, by Inoue, as a trait in need of sacrifice. Rather, much of the game’s tension concerns whether or not they’ll be able to come together as a cohesive unit through understanding, despite their overt differences.
The way this plays out is mesmerizing. Usually, sports shows and movies employ propulsive musical scores to enhance their action, but The First Slam Dunk creates tension through silence, and through its contrast with harsh and jarring sound. This works both for the basketball scenes, in which the passionate, chanting crowd and the squeaking of sneakers on the polished court form their own sonic tapestry (with only the occasional, solitary piano note to assist). But it’s equally effective during dramatic flashbacks too, when silence feels not just like an acoustic choice, but a sense of absence, as Ryota is left to deal with Sota’s death largely alone, in wide shots where he’s the only living presence, reduced practically to an infinitesimal blur.
A heartfelt drama that blooms into a pulse-pounding showcase, The First Slam Dunk captures human anguish and desperate motion in equal measure, making them equal parts of an emotional continuum expressed through silence and sport.
A heartfelt drama that blooms into a pulse-pounding showcase, The First Slam Dunk captures human anguish and desperate motion in equal measure, making them equal parts of an emotional continuum expressed through silence and sport. Inoue’s transition to directing is everything long-time admirers could’ve hoped for, with a tonal zig-zag that tells a new kind of story, but one that beats with the same passion for basketball as his manga series, resulting in one of the year’s most exciting films.
Note: This is a review of the original Japanese dub of The First Slam Dunk. Both the Japanese and English dubs will be available for theatrical viewing.
Published on July 28, 2023