FANTASIA 2023: THE FIRST SLAM DUNK is a Shōnen Masterwork

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Slam Dunk, the iconic sports anime/manga that ran for six years (1990-1996), left an indelible mark on the sports manga/anime. Now three decades later the original creator Takehiko Inoue makes his directorial debut, writing and directing the first new animated feature length film for the property in over three decades titled The First Slam Dunk. This latest entry was a box office juggernaut in Japan and I couldn’t wait to check it out at Fantasia.

I should probably admit that before sitting down, that I have neither seen nor read Slam Dunk, in either incarnation, and I am not the biggest sports fan either. That being said, Slam Dunk is a frantic nailbiter of a film, that like all great sports films at its core has a very human story.  

The hook here is that the entirety of the two-hour runtime transpires nearly in real time within the framework of the high school championship game between two teams: the unbeatable Sannoh school, and the manga protagonists, the underdogs from the Shohoku High. As expected the team from Shohoku is your typical shonen ragtag group of outsiders who are faced with beating an unbeatable foe. Interspersed between the frantically paced game is the heart-wrenching story of Ryota Miyagi, the captain/point guard of Shohoku, who uses basketball to heal not only the death of his father, but also the death of his older brother who was a basketball prodigy. We soon learn this game has a very significant meaning to Royota, who after chasing his brother’s shadow for most of his life, is finally standing where his brother always dreamed he would be, facing off against Sannoh. 

Unlike most anime films based on a series, The First Slam Dunk feels completely accessible to both fans and those curious to check this series out like myself. The ambitious real time game setup makes this a tense watch, since Inoue masterfully cuts back and forth using Ryota’s emotional story to amplify the game’s beats and illuminate the stakes to not only him, but his teammates. Ryota’s story is one of anger, loss, and how basketball carried him through all of that, taking the sports story and elevating it to something more human and accessible. It’s particularly interesting how this carries into his relationship with his grief-stricken mother, who lost not only a husband but a son, only to constantly be reminded of that loss daily due to both brothers’ shared love of the game. 

The film and how it looks is unlike anything I’ve even seen in animation. It’s rumored there was a great deal of R&D put in to achieve its look that perfectly captures the fluid energy and motion of a basketball game, just animated. The animation style uses a combination of motion capture and 3D CG to great effect, while still keeping that hand drawn look of the original manga. Think Chainsaw Man, but a bit less stilted and more organic. There was also no doubt a theatrical budget at work here. This technology has surprisingly grown leaps and bounds in the last few years and does a breathtaking job here at recreating the action in a believable way, bridging the live action and animated world.

Slam Dunk is not just visually a sight to behold, but also a moving story of familial trauma, which is no doubt the reason it resonated with so many. Even while its story is steeped in shonen tropes, Takehiko Inoue has carved a deeply emotional tale in that testosterone and ambition, showing just how these principles and relationships on the court impact the lives off of it. Like any good sports story Slam Dunk is able to make its exhilarating story accessible on a human level; to be honest, I’ve never been more invested in and riveted by a basketball game my entire life. But for those two hours I was cheering the cocky Ryota and his teammates and hoping they were able to unite as a team and take down Sannoh in a story that is accessible to both fans and newcomers alike.

Previous post NYAFF 2023: A TOUR GUIDE
Next post PASSAGES and the Irresistible Chaos of Connection