REVIEW: The First Slam Dunk (2023, dir. Takehiko Inoue)

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 124 mins

UK Distributor: All the Anime

UK Release Date: 30 August 2023

WHO’S IN THE FIRST SLAM DUNK? (ENGLISH VERSION)

Paul Castro Jr., Jonah Scott, Aleks Le, Ben Balmaceda, Aaron Goodson, Abby Espiritu, Zeno Robinson, Yong Yea, Brent Mukai, River Vitae, Kelsey Jaffer, Mike Pollock, Alan Lee

WHO’S IN THE FIRST SLAM DUNK? (JAPANESE VERSION)

Shugo Nakamura, Jun Kasama, Shin’ichiro Kamio, Subaru Kimura, Kenta Miyake, Maaya Sakamoto, Ryota Iwasaki, Chikahiro Kobayashi, Masafumi Kobatake, Kenichiro Matsuda, Asami Seto, Katsuhisa Hōki, Shunsuke Takeuchi

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Takehiko Inoue (director, writer), Toshiyuki Matsui (producer), Satoshi Takebe (composer), Shunsuke Nakamura (cinematographer), Ryûichi Takita (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A high school basketball team fights their way through a championship…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE FIRST SLAM DUNK?

It’s no secret that sports movies almost always stick to a tried-and-tested formula, whether it’s the one about that underdog (or team of underdogs) who defies expectations to become the new champion(s), or the one with the inspiring coach who whips the underperforming team into shape with their unconventional but wise methods. Those two examples alone seem to make up about 85% of most sports movies in existence, which makes it a lot harder for one of them to really stand out among its generic brethren.

That isn’t really a problem for The First Slam Dunk, an animated adaptation of the popular manga series of the same name (which, I’ll say right off the bat, I’ve never read nor know anything about), which is quite a thrilling ride that executes many familiar conventions in exciting and often tense ways.

Written and directed by Takehiko Inoue, the creator of the original manga, the film takes place predominantly during a pivotal game of a high school basketball championship, between the red-jersey team representing Shohoku High School, and their white-jersey rivals from Sannoh High School, who have yet to lose a match. As both teams sweat out their aggressions on the court, using whatever tactics they can to score or prevent the other team from slamming the ball into their net, we constantly flash back to the difficult pasts of various teammates on the Shohoku team, most prominently point guard Ryoto Miyagi (voiced by Shugo Nakamura in the original Japanese version, and by Paul Castro Jr. in the English dub) whose older brother was a promising talent until tragedy struck.

Rather than building towards the climactic showdown between two rival teams, The First Slam Dunk instead adopts it as the central framework for the entire film. We are on the court during this championship game for practically the entire movie, only venturing elsewhere through the non-linear flashbacks throughout, which is a risky creative move since it drops the viewer right into the thick of it without so much as context or build-up (where exactly in the championship this game is taking place isn’t even made particularly clear, if it ever is). However, Inoue cleverly drops little bits of essential information about these characters throughout, enough to get a feel for their personalities, what their ambitions are, how they think, and what they each bring to the team as part of their overall strategy. By the time this game kicks off its second half, you’ve gotten to know these players well enough to enjoy watching them play and rooting for them to get ahead of their rivals, and all while keeping the focus sharply on letting this game play out.

The invigorating animation is a blend of hand-drawn designs, as is traditional in most anime, but there is an extra layer of CGI underneath which gives characters and objects much more flexible movement than a mere 2D drawing might allow. It’s an unusual mix of styles, for it presents the illusion of something hand-drawn, but then the way that people interact with one another, both verbally and physically, is a lot more robust and three-dimensional than one might be used to seeing. The effect, however, is undeniably fantastic; it gives the animation a real kick of life that makes moments of teammates passing the ball to one another look and feel like something out of a Marvel movie, or indeed a general live-action sports movie, with characters’ outlines and even the small beads of sweat falling down their face seeming so real and natural at times that you’d be taken aback upon remembering it’s all constructed by hard-working animators.

Since it moves with such a forceful flow, and with characters who you do get to know and identify with as you go along, The First Slam Dunk is the rare modern sports movie that really does leave you utterly gripped with what’s going to happen next. Even when the pace is occasionally disrupted by yet another flashback, the momentum never truly leaves, and as the seconds literally count down in the final moments of this game you can practically hear your heart beating as the tension builds and builds, until you have no choice but to emotionally react. It’s an impressive feat that Inoue manages to achieve while still providing a meaningful story with identifiable characters – all in his debut as a filmmaker, no less – that compliment the fast-paced and innovative animation style, which really does make this a firm standout among the numerous other generic sports movies as of late.

To use an overdone basketball analogy, The First Slam Dunk shoots and, indeed, scores.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The First Slam Dunk is a tense and invigorating sports movie that rejuvenates the genre with fresh and unique storytelling practises, provided by original manga creator Takehiko Inoue who dazzles in his filmmaking debut that also includes a fantastic blend of 2D and 3D animation that moves at a heart-racing pace.

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