The First Slam Dunk‘s Basketball Thrills Balance Flash and Fundamentals

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The First Slam Dunk‘s Basketball Thrills Balance Flash and Fundamentals

In basketball movies, whenever the coach has to calm his team down, reminding them of all their practice so that they snap back to reality, he calls them into the huddle. He gives a little speech through his stiff mustache, probably about teamwork and heart. At the end he emphasizes a single word: Fundamentals. More than any sport, basketball has the potential for showboating and going back to basics. The First Slam Dunk, with familiar characters, an innovative art style, and a narrative that’s helped structure an entire subgenre of anime, plays both sides of the court as it finds a delicate balance between flash and fundamentals.

The first feature film adaptation of the formative ‘90s sports manga Slam Dunk, The First Slam Dunk comes written and directed by its original creator, Takehiko Inoue. A snapshot of the franchise as a whole, it stuffs swift characterizations, painful backstories, and nimble gameplay into its two-hour high school basketball showdown, as the underdog Shohoku takes on the reigning national champs Sannoh. 

Shohoku is our team, seen through the eyes of short speed demon Ryota Miyagi (Shugo Nakamura), who takes over main character duties from the novice Hanamichi Sakuragi (Subaru Kimura), a punk-turned-jock with dyed-red hair. Their teammates include Miyagi’s ex-bully Hisashi Mitsui (Jun Kasama), glass cannon hotshot Kaede Rukawa (Shin’ichiro Kamio), and ambitious Black senior Takenori Akagi (Kenta Miyake).

If you’ve learned the rules of any other sports anime, like the volleyball series Haikyu!!, you’ll be familiar with how we get to know these players between bursts of activity. Flashbacks abound, and the court is just as likely to fade out around a player’s head as it is to crush them with kineticism. 

When going about their lives, the characters are rendered in the same crisp, detailed 2D as their environment. When they hit the court, they become 3D CG models that allow for their expressive movements (the fluidity clearly influenced by motion-capture) to be seen from all angles by a roving, excitable camera. The mobility of the artwork and the efficiency of the production has led to more and more 3D anime movies (studio Toei Animation’s latest Dragon Ball film made the jump to full CG after blending approaches a few years before), but The First Slam Dunk is the most effective use of the style I’ve seen yet. The 3D character models are nearly indistinguishable from their 2D counterparts and offer a real sense of depth thanks to a constant sheen of sweat. Lifelike reference work combines with sketchy pencil-stroke details to create characters that maintain a hand-drawn charm despite dribbling, shooting, and dunking with a silky smoothness. The First Slam Dunk moves like the NBA while exploiting the possibilities of animation to give us the perfect view of the action.

Less innovative use of the medium comes from its structure, where we glean insights throughout the game into each of Shohoku’s starters, most of all Miyagi. Miyagi’s psychology is a bit more tragic than his peers, but these backstories have become archetypal for shōnen of all kinds—there’s the lazy one with a new inner fire to be the best, the bad boy learning to funnel his passion into something productive, the shamed delinquent looking to repent, the old-timer learning to accept the rookies around him. It’s not groundbreaking, but there’s a reason these roles have become standardized, and The First Slam Dunk does well to flesh out its team without feeling like it’s giving a high-level overview of 100 half-hour episodes. Surprisingly raw voicework does a lot of the heavy lifting, with Nakamura in particular leaving it all on the court.

But the familiarity isn’t all comforting. Though The First Slam Dunk and its source material are thankfully more realistic in its depictions of Black people than, say, the caricatures of Akira Toriyama, plenty of racism remains. The team’s Black player, Akagi, is nicknamed “Gori” and his dunks are referred to as “gorilla dunks.” He always squares up against the other team’s Black player, whom Akagi’s teammates also refer to as a “big bald gorilla.” Beyond these racist tropes are smaller microaggressions; even Miyagi’s incongruously curly hi-top fade feels appropriative. Staying true to the manga’s roots is admirable for an adaptation, but not everything needs to remain in the ‘90s.

But just when some of its offensive details threaten to derail the entire movie, or when the movie’s excess length threatens to grind it to a complete halt (The First Slam Dunk can get repetitive, no matter how electric the action), it breaks out another trick. As our attention wanes, the fantastic climax yanks us to our feet in a sensational, heart-stopping burst of invention. Taking place over the final minute of the game, the conclusion owes as much to Raging Bull in its adrenaline-warped use of time, sound and light, as it does to the countless underdog sports stories that established its template. The music drops out. The sound effects become nearly silent. You lean in, realizing how realistic the movie has made everything feel up until this point. When the clock finally expires and you finally remember to respire, you’ll have seen one of the year’s best action sequences. 

The First Slam Dunk wants it all. It wants to encompass both a satisfying entry point for newcomers, and a fleshed-out standalone for superfans. It wants to show how satisfyingly a sport can be animated, and how spectacularly it can evoke the sensations of seeing—or, even better, playing—a moment you’ll forever log in your memory’s highlight reel. It wants to dunk, and it wants to be automatic from the free throw line. It wants to be retro and to be on the cutting edge. The First Slam Dunk wants it all, and it’s a testament to Inoue and his team that they even get close.

Director: Takehiko Inoue
Writer: Takehiko Inoue
Starring: Shugo Nakamura, Jun Kasama, Shin’ichirō Kamio, Subaru Kimura, Kenta Miyake
Release Date: July 28, 2023

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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