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The First Slam Dunk

4 out of 5 stars

Anime at its most kinetic, this supercharged teen basketball drama is beat poetry in motion

Phil de Semlyen

Time Out says

It’s no surprise that this manga-to-anime adaptation, framed around a single high-stakes teen basketball game, is a box-office smash in Asia – even if the sums involved ($151 million) are seriously eye-catching.

Because manga writer Takehiko Inoue has reimagined his own huge-selling and borderline iconic ’90s series ‘Slam Dunk’ (made into an anime series in the same decade) into an immersive, soulful and gripping big-screen experience. It tackles one teenage boy’s battle with grief, identity and growing up via a single showdown with a phalanx of giant, seemingly invincible opposition ‘ballers.

The kid in question is Ryota Miyagi (voiced in the English dub by Paul Castro Jr), a speedy and sinewy point guard for Shohoku high-school's basketball team as they take on a superior outfit in a key game. He has a volatile streak and a flashback to his initially idyllic childhood on the island of Okinawa reveals why: his revered, basketball-loving older brother drowned at sea, leaving a bereft Ryota designated ‘alternative captain’ of his family.

He’s not a leader when we meet him. His early-game struggles with the opposition’s more dominant physicality and zone press (a working knowledge of basketball definitely helps here) are analogous with his life as a whole. Initially boxed in and struggling, we see him slowly growing – on court and off. ‘He’ll never be his brother’ is the taunt he learns to shake off.

The First Slam Dunk’s nimble storytelling and canny editing makes it work as both a sports movie, where you’re invested in the result, and a coming-of-age drama, where you care about the characters. So much so, that by the end even the Shohoku’s opponents have started to take shape as characters in their own right. Ryota’s team mates all get their time to shine, especially ferocious, flame-haired rebounder Hanamichi (Ben Balmaceda) and Ryota’s crush, team manager Ayako (Kelsey Jaffer).

Takehiko Inoue has reimagined his own manga into an immersive, soulful and gripping big-screen experience

The First Slam Dunk may be the squeakiest film since Stuart Little – its foley team presumably getting through a tonne of rubber soles to replicate the high-pitched sound of shoes gripping on polished wood. If it sounds like a minor detail, the sonics are actually everything here: from drops of sweat on the floor to the muscular clash of bodies on court. Occasionally, the sound drops out altogether – this is a film that uses silence brilliantly – to deliver affecting bubbles of serenity in the midst of the sweaty showdown. Then the thrashy soundtrack kicks in and we’re away again.

There’s loads more going on here, too, from explosions of Beat Takeshi-style schoolyard violence to cutaways to Ryoto’s boyhood. It has acute things to say about finding your groove amid all the messiness of growing up, and finding respect for yourself and your opponents. Grab four friends and go see it.

In UK cinemas now.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Takehiko Inoue
  • Screenwriter:Takehiko Inoue
  • Cast:
    • David Cui Cui
    • Luis Bermudez
    • Paul Castro Jr
    • Abby Espiritu
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