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The First Slam Dunk: Exhilarating On-Court Action

Image courtesy of Panap Media

For the fifth highest-grossing anime of all time, there’s been a surprising lack of buzz around The First Slam Dunk. Granted, a basketball-themed coming-of-age movie based on a mid ’90s anime serial doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that’s going to break box office records, but in an era when old school masculine melodrama is making a resurgence—as seen in the two highest grossing films of last year, Avatar: The Way of the Water and Top Gun: Maverick—it makes a little sense for this to arrive as a bit of a breath of fresh air and may find a global audience. Sports dramas are hard to get wrong after all and more than anything, The First Slam Dunk understands why that is.

Ingeniously structured around not a series of games, an ascent through the leagues, or all building up to one climactic championship fight, The First Slam Dunk takes place across one game, the high school league debut of Shohoku High, playing against the undefeated reigning champions Sannoh High. This single afternoon is interspersed with extensive flashbacks, revealing insights into each member of the Shohoku squad, and even occasionally their opponents, exploring their drives, insecurities and emotions going into the game. This is especially the case for point guard Ryota, who has a big pair of basketball shoes to fill.

The film opens with a much younger Ryota shooting some hoops with his older brother, already a promising rising star. His brother then leaves and predictably enough, dies. Leaving Ryota shaken with grief and at a loss as to his own identity, resolving eventually to fulfil his brother’s unfinished potential. Each of his teammates has their own smaller arc, but Ryota’s grief is the engine that drives the melodrama off the court, as he becomes increasingly standoffish and arrogant, committing himself ever further to his chosen destiny. But of course, basketball is a team sport, and if he’s going to become the best point guard, he’ll need the best teammates and to get the best out of them.

On paper, those teammates are as formulaic a lineup of trope anime characters as Ryota is a traditionally angsty male protagonist, but their characterizations go beyond the familiar into the specific and become compelling despite their familiarity. The film even implies a possible romantic chemistry between two of the players, but it’s very subtle. The actual protagonist of the Slam Dunk manga serial was not Ryota, but Hanamichi, the red haired live wire power forward, and his main-character syndrome is an undeniably entertaining highlight, injecting some humor and absurdity into an otherwise realist experience (by anime standards). The film takes the time to build its characters and forces the viewer to live with the pain of losing a sibling. In this case, it’s not just a sibling but a father figure, as Ryota’s older brother briefly took over as head of the household after their father’s death. Ryota is constantly compared to his brother, told he won’t measure up to him, and there’s a moment that’s perhaps a little too close to Walk Hard’s immortal “the wrong kid died.” The fact is Ryota doesn’t need anyone to measure him against his brother, as he does that himself, constantly.

The off-court melodrama is frankly, a little overwrought, not in the usual hyperactive and fantastic anime style, but in a more realist, stoic fashion that marks the film’s story as a product of the ’90s. Its intensity is undeniable though and results in some poignant moments and supports the real drama on the court. The First Slam Dunk is a basketball movie like no other, structured as it is around a single match: we have the usual formula—the mismatched team of squabbling underdogs, each with their own personal baggage, facing down their bigger, more prestigious rivals in a nail-biting race where every point counts—but condensed down to its purest form and expressed through kinetic, vibrant animation that lets the viewer follow the action from the tiniest flick of the wrist to the thunderous leaps and tackles.

Animation wise, it’s clear that the great majority of the effort went into this one set piece, a blend of 2D and 3D CG, where the 2D animation in the flashback scenes often noticeably less fluid and dynamic. They knew where the effort would be needed most and it paid off. Fully 3D animation has often had poor results in anime, and the filmmakers were clearly anxious to capture the look and feel of the manga, with a desaturated color palette and still using predominantly 2D animation. Though there are a few outlying sequences, most notably the opening scene, which look comparatively rough, the central set piece is stunningly dynamic and visceral, an effect enhanced by the razor sharp editing and musical cues. On thing Anime and Sports Dramas have in common, besides the often histrionic character drama, is that they know how to build hype and intensity, and The First Slam Dunk pulls out every trick in the book to make each point exchanged  feel monumental.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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