Few films can capture the pure beauty of basketball at its peak. Yet even fewer can showcase the intensity and violence of the game when played at the highest levels. The First Slam Dunk finally arrives in the Western Hemisphere and immediately showcases why it was a sensation in Japan. Featuring unbelievable hand-drawn and CGI hybrid animation, The First Slam Dunk is an emotional and visual powerhouse.
Ryota Miyagi joins the Shohoku High School basketball as a sophomore and finds himself riding the bench. After he cracks the starting lineup, Shohoku begins winning. When the team finds themselves in the Inter-High School National Championship, Ryota begins to remember the integral moments of his life. His love of basketball stems from his brother and the family tragedy comes flooding back to him. The team must overcome their baggage if they hope to win the game against a tough opponent.
From its opening frames, The First Slam Dunk excels as a visual marvel. The intensity, freneticism, and quick twitch nature of basketball all come through. Adopting the visual language of intense fighting stories, first-time feature director Takehiko Inoue brings unique images to life, turning the basketball court into a stage for vulnerability.
While at two hours, it feels a little long, The First Slam Dunk packs a ton of story. We get the backgrounds of each character, and doing so allows Inoue to break with form. Each of the five main characters – Ryota, Sakuragi, Rukawa, Akagi, and Mitsui – become three-dimensional characters. As their backstories converge and intersect, we begin to understand their insecurities and dreams.
Perhaps most importantly, the five teens realize what they mean to each other. As they fall behind and struggle on the floor, the bonds that brought them together shine through. It makes it easy to root for the team and show the lengths they’ve overcome as they attempt to bond.
For those unused to Japanese animation, the melodrama may come as a surprise. Yet these beats and the introspection it inspires become integral to the emotional tale. The First Slam Dunk needs to work on a base emotional level for the story to land. The visuals will be considered the standout, but the quiet introspective moments are what endear us to the excellent characters. While Inoue deserves acclaim for creating a story and visual palette of note, his ability to find the smaller moments in The First Slam Dunk pushes him into the limelight as a director to watch.