As the title implies, The First Slam Dunk is an opportunity for the anime and manga translation to introduce a new audience to this classic Shōnen sports story. It’s a hard task to take serialized storytelling and to cleanly sum it all up in a movie. What Takehiko Inoue (original series artist and director) does to solve this problem is that he starts at the end. The First Slam Dunk is, in fact, about the last slam dunk — the final game of the season, the Inter-High School National Championship between the rival schools Shohoku and their reigning champion rivals Sannoh. Another Inoue employs is a perspective shift, recentering the story around the swift Sophmore point guard Ryota Miyagi, affording the lead immediate captaincy and a central role on the court.
Miyagi plays basketball in memory of his late older brother, who had a great love of the game, and whose death spurred him to become the player his brother dreamed of being. This is a major plot shift from the manga and anime, which follow Hanamichi Sakuragi, a freshman power forward, who is a love-lorn gangster, joining the team to impress a girl but learning a lot about himself along the way. While Sakuragi is no longer framed as the turning point for the movie, the action on-court largely surrounds his effort to become a respectable basketball player. This creates a clash in narrative purpose, as the new movie tells one story while still paying credence to the original story series fans are expecting; this is probable fan service to the initiated but likely confusing to newcomers.
The other present challenge is to tell a whole anime and manga run’s story in one movie. By backloading the story into the final match, the film uses all the drama of the championship as a wraparound device. Between big on-court moments, we get flashbacks detailing relevant character backstories. The time constraints mean that we’re largely focused on the protagonist squad and only get passing background on their rivals. It feels like there is so much detail here, which is conveyed smartly through the context of the basketball game, but leaves a number of blanks as a standalone story.
The entire aesthetic has also radically shifted from hand-drawn manga and anime to a computerized approach that still holds many reference points to the old style. It’s often stunning in motion. It captures the visual poetry of the back-and-forth of a good basketball game and is grounded by attentive sound design. The new aesthetic feels grounded in the sport and enhances many of its biggest moments. Early in the movie, there are sequences of the characters being drawn up as manga illustrations and while it’s a beautiful and exciting introductory sequence, the new choices present a big next step for anime.
You can feel the care and craft that has gone into every character, each uniquely expressive. The new visual language allows great detail and nuance. Each athlete is progressively worn down as the game develops, their limbs more strained, their faces beading with sweat, bodies stiffened. This extra dimensionality allows a lot of context clues for how each character is playing while also conveying their personalities in how they move. It’s a very successful choice and a deeply impressive highlight for the film.
Basketball has never shown up on film quite like this. The First Slam Dunk is a visually exciting movie that takes a lot of liberties and pains to stand as its own independent work. In doing so, it also funnels the story down a more streamlined and accessible path, while seemingly missing chunks of narrative arcs that would really make it mean something when we’re watching this climactic final match-up. Series fans will have that context and newcomers will want to find out about it, so it’s ultimately still a Slam Dunk worthy success. The First Slam Dunk makes basketball captivating as its main event and looks awfully good doing it.