One of the most popular manga series of all time––one which ran in the same pages as Dragon Ball, Naruto, One Piece, and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure––has never achieved the same Western pop-cultural ubiquity as some of its Shonen Jump colleagues. Originally serialized from the early to mid 1990s, Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk eschews martial arts and superpowers to take as its subject, ironically enough, the all-American sport of basketball. Borrowing the tropes of teen sports dramas from both Japan and Hollywood, Inoue’s 31-volume saga traced the winding ascendancy of a high school ruffian and his motley crew of teammates through rivalries, romantic entanglements, and backstreet brawls to find their purpose in the game and the pursuit of B-ball greatness. (Inoue would later author a manga about Miyamoto Musashi, the foundational punk-to-warrior narrative of Japanese literature.) In lieu of fantastical elements often present in shonen (boys’ YA) manga, Inoue’s detailed art and writing emphasized realistic maneuvers and tactics of the sport without skimping on larger-than-life (yet psychologically believable) characters and dense soap-opera plotting to command even the basketball-deficient’s attention. It proved such a cultural sensation that Slam Dunk has been credited with popularizing the second-fiddle sport of basketball in Japan and East Asia.

Having already cracked the top five highest-grossing Japanese films of all time overseas, The First Slam Dunk now comes to North American theaters this week. Written and directed by Inoue himself based on his own manga––a rare double-duty distinction he now shares with Akira’s Katsuhiro Otomo––the anime film makes no effort to disguise its status as the offshoot of a serial drama, plunging the audience straight into a climactic showdown whose characters, stakes, and setup are presumed to already be at least vaguely familiar to its audience. Contrary to what the name might imply, The First Slam Dunk is not any kind of prequel to the original series, but situated deep within its plot, as our heroes of the scrappy underdog Shohoku High School team takes on the cocky champs at archrival Sannoh High.

Thankfully, an absence of series foreknowledge isn’t as much of a dealbreaker here as in something like The End of Evangelion: high school basketball is a reasonably self-explanatory premise, for one thing, and Inoue’s script broadly establishes the differing personalities, relationships, and motivations of its main cast via tactful implication––a pointed remark here, an intense gaze there, a throwaway line or two of organic-enough exposition––enough so at least that we uninitiated can roughly picture the context we’re missing even as we follow the key bullet points. Like The End of Evangelion, though (and I promise the comparisons end here) The First Slam Dunk exploits its unique cross-media positioning to deliver an unconventional narrative structure few other films could get away with: one sweaty, breathless feature-length climax, no setup, no rising action, no grist. Barring a brief prologue and epilogue framing the ensemble drama through a single character’s perspective, this entire film is set within one epic two-hour ballgame, intercut with vintage Shonen Jump flashbacks and internal monologues establishing the necessary context to understand that we aren’t just watching a game of ball, but the psychological culmination of these characters’ entire lives

This extreme narrow focus, combined with the malleability of the medium of animation, allows Inoue to go deep into the action on a level no other sports movie has attempted. While popular Hollywood films like Love & Basketball or Space Jam tend to cut liberally through the actual ball games to focus on characters and banter, Inoue finds the characters in the fine-grained action of the sport itself. The big game is choreographed in play-by-play levels of detail, each strategic huddle with the pudgy team coach played out in full, every tactical maneuver corresponding to the differing personalities and skillsets of each character, each pass and shot a dramatic beat representing action unto itself while developing character psychology as both the relationships and the playing field evolve before our eyes. 

To this end, Inoue pursues an aesthetic that may prove polarizing, but is nothing if not considered. The topic of 3D computer modeling and animation in anime is a controversial one. The combination of CG models with anime’s traditionally flat colors and low framerate (Japan’s animators tend to emphasize pictorial detail and selective motion over Western animation’s omnidirectional fluidity) results in puppet-like movement which detractors often describe as crashing into the uncanny valley and breaking diegesis with traditionally drawn 2D art and movement in the same frames. For The First Slam Dunk, Inoue incorporates a mixture of rotoscoped 3D character models on the court and 2D backgrounds, textures, and supporting characters drawn in his familiar style, painted in soft impressionist pseudo-watercolors to match similarly impressionist direction. The effect is not unlike Studio 4C’s 2012-2013 trilogy of Berserk films, but with a clear difference in fluidity and intent. The rotoscoped motion allows every moment of the ball game to display a sophistication of human movement that simply would not be feasible using strictly traditional animation, and a baseline of athletic realism is crucial to Inoue’s goals. Once the movement of his animated figures is damn near photorealistic, he can proceed to abstract and stylize them through the traditional strengths of stylized anime and manga expression: symbolic colors, physiognomous faces, tactical compressions, and expansions of time to make one moment or one movement tower over others. The approach might not work as well if the real-life physical language of basketball was less identifiable to the audience, but what Inoue achieves creates an uncanny space between ESPN broadcast and abstract dance that heightens the maneuvers of the game to nigh-mythic levels of spectacle and melodrama.

The film frames its climactic intensity not through the perspective of the manga’s main hero, the red-haired wild card B-ball prodigy Hanamichi Sakuragi (voiced by Subaru Kimura in Japanese, Ben Balmaceda in English), but supporting character and Shohoku High teammate Ryota Miyagi (Shugo Nakamura in Japanese, Paul Castro Jr. in English). The shift in perspective to one unexplored in the original series is a clever means of splitting the difference between diehards and neophytes in the audience, but it also serves Inoue’s thematic purposes. A sullen point guard contrasted to Hanamichi’s rambunctious star slam-dunking bad boy persona, Ryota is defined with (relative) subtlety as a true social outsider: an Okinawan from a single-parent working household, and an implied mixed-race hafu at that. (His deceased father appears to be a black man, though his racial status is never brought up explicitly.) On top of that his household is torn by the tragic loss of his basketball-star older brother, and Inoue handles their grieving family unit with a combination of shameless tearjerking and surprisingly fine-grained observation––details like the three surviving family members holding a private, bittersweet birthday celebration for the deceased have both the smell of emotional manipulation and the ring of truth. (If it all seems a bit much, do keep in mind that you’re watching a teen melodrama.) Ryota finds his brother’s presence in basketball, but is held back by disadvantages both physical (he is unusually short for the game) and mental (self-destructive behavior manifesting from his unprocessed grief and social outsiderdom).

Ryota’s promotion from sidekick to principle perspective underlines Inoue’s heartfelt theme of sport as the great equalizer. Beyond turning boys into men and sanding out differences of personality and social class, Inoue’s utopian conception of the court-as-social-microcosm fixates intently on the delicate synthesis of individualism and teamwork from which, he assures us, greatness arises. Shohoku High’s personalities big and small are often abrasive and at odds, threatening to undermine one another and the carefully laid strategies of the team as internal conflicts flare up and Sannoh High counters every play with an expert play of their own. Their eventual successes, then, come not from joining their hearts as one, but from recognizing the unique proclivities of each player, playing them off one another in strategic harmony, and sacrificing ego just enough for cocky star players to sometimes undermine their own roles and self-doubting support players to step into the spotlight––no better way to keep the enemy guessing.

That I was able to glean all of this as an outsider makes me optimistic for the film’s chances with those who better know their ‘90s Shonen Jump serials or their B-ball. That its torrents of plot and basketball talk sometimes had me checking the time is something I’m willing to attribute more to my own limitations than the film’s. Inoue’s film is not just an effective youth melodrama––much as it is that––but a fully sensory action film that deeply understands the raw appeal of its subject beyond wide-angle shots from the bleachers. It didn’t quite have me rushing to book NBA tickets, but it did leave me hopeful that some cinematically gifted American sportsman might start thinking seriously about how to approach its operatic heights in audiovisual portrayals of the game.

The First Slam Dunk opens Japan Cuts 2023 on July 26 and arrives in theaters on July 28 via GKIDS.

Grade: B+

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