The First Slam Dunk might be the most powerful movie you’ll ever see in the animation sphere. Takehiko Inoue, not only the original creator of the Slam Dunk series but also the director of this movie has done something here thats beyond simple adaptation. Literally redefining an already iconic and best-selling series that shot him to fame early on in his career. Inoue’s later works Vagabond and Real cemented his legacy and set the tone of his more serious storytelling chops, something that this version of Slam Dunk uses as its core foundation.
The original run of Slam Dunk remains one of my all-time favourite manga series to this day. The series was a brilliant example of a coming-of-age sports manga combining serious competition and laugh-out-loud comedy. I don’t think any series since has had me bursting out with laughter while reading. It’s a rare treat that not many can compare to. The same goes for the attention to detail when it comes to basketball and the big-game thrill that Inoue manages to convey. Many sports series have come and gone but few manage to compete at this level.
The First Slam Dunk is a perfect blend of being accessible to newcomers while also satisfying the wants of seasoned fans. In fact, as a seasoned fan, this take on the story feels refreshingly new and exciting. I might be familiar with the characters and their stories but we’re also exploring new ground. There’s a major tonal shift and with that a change in perspective with how we view the events that play out. Fans that are familiar with a certain redheaded punk whose always at the centre of every comedy situation would be forgiven for thinking that we’d once again follow his journey through the world of basketball. Instead, we’re given a backstory with real emotion for the smallest member and point guard of the Shohoku team, Ryota Miyagi.
Miyagi, like our previously mentioned redheaded punk Hanamichi Sakuragi, is mainly used for comedic relief in the original series and although he’s a very important member of the team he wasn’t the main character. Thankfully his criminal lack of important backstory is justifiably remedied in this outing. At least for this movie, he has been promoted to leading man with the other members of the team being introduced during their interactions with Miyagi, in most cases anyway. Miyagi’s backstory involving painful loss set the tone for this movie and while there are a couple of comedic moments they are just a nod to those who are familiar with the original.
The story masterfully unfolds during an important basketball game that I believe is their first major game, though I’m not entirely sure as it’s been a good while since I’ve revisited the series. During said game, the interactions between characters on the court lead directly into their motivations and what has brought them to this point. Effectively spacing character introductions evenly throughout the film and used at the perfect moments.
Adaptations are tricky at the best of times and while we might all prefer a direct 1-to-1 translation that doesn’t always work across different media. What Inoue has managed here is honestly a masterclass and possibly only achieved through having intimate knowledge of the story being its creator, a fact only he can claim. Personally, changes of this magnitude would normally receive a fair amount of criticism on my part but I can honestly say they have only served to make the story stronger.
CGI and 3D animation are touchy subjects within the anime community. Often examples are presented of traditional 2D animation from the 90s blowing modern forms of 3D out of the water, Dragon Ball being a popular showcase for this. Yet there are brilliant examples of modern techniques being used to create unique and awe-inspiring visuals the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Miles Morales Spider-Man movies are a testament to this. The First Slam Dunk follows this recent trend and wonderfully combines both traditional 2D animation with 3DCG and the result speaks for itself. Visually there’s a more manga feel to the animation than standard anime but also realism in the action sequences. It genuinely feels that a high-level basketball game is unfolding before your eyes.
Akin to the previously mentioned Spider-Man movies The First Slam Dunk features a soundscape that rivals its visual majesty. While terror-inducing themes that accompany the likes of The Prowler don’t have a like here it’s the total absence of sound and its effectiveness that build the tension. The use of loud adrenaline-pumping music fueling the excitement suddenly cutting to silence leaves you almost forgetting how to breathe. A powerful tool and maybe a touch overdone within the confines of one movie. A jarring experience for sure and perhaps the same effect could have been achieved with heavy breathing from the players while also lessening the feeling of overuse. Regardless, that feeling of complete silence is something you are not likely to forget.
The First Slam Dunk is a masterclass on how adaptation can be used to create a brand-new experience without taking away from the source material. I couldn’t have imagined my favourite manga series of all time being reimagined into a form that not only improves but strengthens the story. All the while still complementing the original yet remaining accessible to newcomers.