Come sports fans, come animation buffs, come consumers of impeccably-crafted dramas! Eye-popping, stunningly-realized animation is becoming all the rage lately, and Japanese import The First Slam Dunk, based upon the popular 90s manga and anime series, arrives at the festival to continue this trend. For what essentially boils down to one feature-length basketball match, The First Slam Dunk overflows with more suspense and nail-biting tension in its final act than many other generic sports flicks put together.
Complex teenager Ryota (Shugo Nakamura) brings his lightning speed and whip-smart intelligence to the court of the Inter-High School National Championship. His inner strength comes from a surprising trauma from his past, the likes of which we explore through cherry-picked nuggets of Ryota’s past. The movie takes a unique approach by apparently adapting the final arc of its source material, a big showdown between teams Shohoku High School and Sannoh Industry, into feature-length. As such, the name itself is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, The First Slam Dunk may be one large basketball game, but in exploring backstories for its disparate cast of characters, this becomes far more than just a simple sports movie.
Admittedly, when it comes to anime, my expertise pretty much starts and ends with four titles: Pokemon, Full Metal Alchemist, Death Note, and Parasyte. Sports anime is huge in Japan, with original anime Slam Dunk running over 100 episodes, and shows like Blue Lock focusing on football. That said, The First Slam Dunk requires no background whatsoever to its source material. The film stands on its own two feet with a solid emotional core, and subtle messages to go along with its harrowing depiction of the high-energy sport of basketball.
Inventive 3D animation blends modern stylings and old-school technique—for its title treatment, The First Slam Dunk draws the core players onscreen in black and white, in a sketchy manner. Similar to the moment Dorothy walks out of her fallen home in The Wizard of Oz, colors spring to life as the game begins; the film’s title tilts, framed and perfectly displayed at center court. A later visualization of a tiny devil, and slow motion or manga-blocks of split screen to convey basket-shots are visually lush.
The First Slam Dunk may not be the first basketball movie ever, nor will it be the last. However, its animation style and exciting game dynamics are unlike anything I have seen cinematically portrayed of the sport. Whether American audiences will be as sold on its unique qualities remains to be seen. At the end of the day, there will be no denying The First Slam Dunk is one of the best sports movies of the last decade. Sure as a dripping bead of sweat in a climactic moment, Takehiko Inoue’s masterpiece accomplishes marvels off its simplistic concept.
The First Slam Dunk screened at 2023’s Fantasia International Film Festival. It comes to theaters later this year from GKIDS, with the option of original Japanese with English subtitles or dubbed.