Entertainment

The First Slam Dunk is a heartening homecoming for fans


There’s a special brand of charm that comes with sports anime, and the appeal doesn’t just stem from the high-octane, heart-pumping action.

While it’s always a joy to witness the last-minute thrills, hard-fought victories, and sensational plays unfolding in the arena, the heart of the genre lies much in the journey, where characters struggle, fall, and grow into their full potential while also building a sense of camaraderie with others. 

It’s a formula that has withstood the test of time and has also bled into popular manga/anime titles over the years, regardless of their sporting nature.

Haikyuu!! may centre around volleyball, and Blue Lock on football, but any work worth its salt from the genre will know the importance of having well-developed characters in a poignant story about triumph, loss, and chasing after one’s dreams.

Slam Dunk continues to be a shining example of everything done right for a sports title. Adapted into an anime in 1993, the basketball-centric manga series (1990 to 1996) written and illustrated by Takehiko Inoue took the community by storm, winning over the hearts of many with a straightforward premise about a high-schooler who picks up basketball from the ground up to get close to his crush, and subsequently learns to get along with the rest of his teammates. 

Making a triumphant return after 26 long years, The First Slam Dunk, written and directed by Takehiko, proves to be a heartening homecoming for fans. It premiered in Japan on Dec 3 last year, and has since kept up its dominating box office performance – and for good reasons too.

The movie expertly weaves a good character story with tense, exhilarating court action, but more importantly, it doesn’t need to rely on nostalgia to deliver a delightful, stirring experience even for newcomers.

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The story adopts the iconic match between Shohoku High School and Sannoh Industry at the end of the manga, which makes sense from a narrative point of view.

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With the anime’s 101-episode run, it’ll be impossible to fit the entire story into its two-hour runtime without rushing things out, so the final arc makes a good fit since it also packs in plenty of heart-stopping court action. Naturally, that means first-timers are thrown right into the deep, but The First Slam Dunk thankfully provides sufficient context for them to catch up and develop a basic understanding of the overarching plot. 

Instead of the red-haired and iconic Sakuragi Hanamichi, his point guard teammate, Miyagi Ryota (#7), is the star here. The film opens with the reliable, swift-footed player in his younger days, as he engages in a one-on-one basketball match with his brother, who’s the ace of his team.

What transpires next is a series of events that explores Miyagi’s complicated relationship with his family, the struggle to grow into his own person, as well as his ambitions with the sport.

Sprinkled into the narrative tapestry are the experiences of each Shohoku member, chronicled through flashback sequences.

From the seemingly confident captain Akagi Takenori (#4) to the stoic ace player Rukawa Kaede (#11), everyone on the team has their own past and share of difficulties, and it’s during such moments that returning fans are reminded of just how far the characters have grown over the course of Slam Dunk.

Newcomers will inevitably lose some context that this pill of nostalgia offers, especially since the scenes are relatively sparse, light on detail, and spread unevenly across the cast, but for fans, these simple reminders make it easier to understand a character’s behaviour and motivations both on and off the court.

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Miyagi’s backstory easily makes up for the gap, packing in a narrative punch that fuels the viewer’s desire to see him succeed. It paints him as an empathetic figure, one who, despite physical limitations and unfortunate circumstances, doesn’t stop holding on to the significance of playing basketball.

Throw into the mix familiar experiences from the real world, such as falling prey to imposter syndrome and processing unaddressed grief, and it’s a tale that many can relate to. 

Then, there’s the elephant in the room: the switch to a different animation style. The First Slam Dunk, with its 3D, computer-generated visuals, marks a departure from its traditional anime look, and it continues to be a talking point for the community. The concerns aren’t unfounded: the artistic change does look awkward in the trailers, bringing an unnatural stiffness to the character models. 

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On the silver screen, though, the flair works better than expected. While the fresh coat of paint can take a while to get used to, it adds a distinctive touch that lends itself especially well to action scenes.

The smooth arc of the ball in the air, close-up shots of a dribbling sequence, and the run-up into a slam dunk – all of these feel moments take on a more dynamic, striking look on the 3D stage. Outside of the court, the visuals are more of a hit-or-miss affair, blending in smoothly in some instances, and looking out of place in others. 

There are also little touches of magic that serve to further liven up the animation. For example, a clever trick before the start of the match transforms the Shohoku starting lineup from rough pencil sketches into 3D figures, which is a neat callback to the film’s manga roots.

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The hectic, intense on-court thrills are later juxtaposed with a bout of deliberate silence during the match’s final moments, jacking up the tension and exhilaration to greater levels. Credit has to be given to the all-new voice cast, too, who has done a good job of breathing life into their respective characters.

Even with the long hiatus, it’s almost as if the spirit of Slam Dunk never truly left. Between the action chops, a compelling character story, and the nostalgic trip down memory lane, there’s plenty to like about The First Slam Dunk.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a returning fan or a newcomer, either – the movie has enough heart to endear viewers to its ragtag bunch of basketball players who are all champions in their own right. 

The First Slam Dunk will come to theatres in Singapore on Feb 2 2023.

Making its return as the king of the court, The First Slam Dunk lives up to the legacy that was left behind 26 years ago, showing that it still has the same brand of charm to enchant both old and new audiences.

Geek review score

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This article was first published in Geek Culture.



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