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If you’ve ever been swept up in the anxious rush that comes with watching competitive sports, you might recognise the sensation of time warping with the rhythm of the game: a particularly fierce stretch will race by; a ball played at a crucial moment seems to hang in the air for an eternity. Inoue Takehiko’s basketball anime The First Slam Dunk pushes this effect to its extreme. When the pace picks up, drums pound and colour blanches into raw, monochrome lines of motion. But when it slows down, silence; even the simplest jump shot is dissected in painstaking, methodical detail.
This mercurial push and pull is something uniquely possible in the visual language of animation, and particularly in sports anime, a subgenre that can take something as diminutive as, say, a high school basketball game, and transfigure it into a high-stakes, high-octane fantasia of speed and sound. TV shows like Haikyuu!! (2014, about volleyball) or Hajime no ippo (2000 – boxing) – with their larger-than-life personalities and hyperreal visual palette – treat sport with the same beatific reverence with which George Miller would a car chase or John Woo a gunfight.
And there are few more iconic examples of this style than Slam Dunk, the bestselling manga whose TV anime adaptation hit Japanese screens in the mid-90s and sparked a basketball craze in the country. A large part of its appeal was its red-haired black sheep protagonist Sakuragi Hanamichi, a juvenile delinquent turned rookie power forward whose ragged, unorthodox playing style makes him an irresistible (and infuriating) presence on and off the court. Sakuragi’s transformation from rash amateur to formidable rebound specialist parallels the ascendancy of his ragtag underdog team from Shohoku High School, who eventually succeed in toppling three-time national champions Sannoh High.
It was a surprise to veteran Slam Dunk fans, then, when director and author of the original manga Inoue Takehiko chose to demote Sakuragi to a supporting role in this new film adaptation. Instead, he shifts his attention to Miyagi Ryota, the brooding point guard whose rugged exterior masks a profound grief at the death of his older brother several years before. Inoue also takes advantage of having a bigger budget over a shorter runtime by experimenting with a textured, tactile 2D-3D hybrid animation style for the film’s basketball scenes.
Both gambles pay off. The animation, in particular, scintillates. While other anime films have used hybrid animation to great effect (Promare, 2019; Belle, 2021), Inoue’s film stands out in applying it to something as viscerally physical as sport. The original 1990s anime was bound by fixed frames, repetitive run cycles and static expressions. By contrast, The First Slam Dunk flows like water: not just in the balletic movement of the characters, but the camera itself, which dives and swings to follow each drive in real time. The film expands and contracts with not only time but also space: a key pass seems to stretch the court itself, while zone defence feels menacingly claustrophobic. Scenes toggle effortlessly between the macro and the micro, between panoramic views of the gymnasium and details of feet shuffling, beads of sweat, the mechanical elegance of a wrist flicking into a hook shot.
Meanwhile, Inoue’s focus on Miyagi lends the film a disarming, down-to-earth intimacy that provides a necessary counterweight to the blistering, blustering pace of the Shohoku-Sannoh match. We learn through flashbacks that Miyagi learned to play basketball from his brother Sota, who he idolised and envied in equal measure. After Sota’s death, basketball becomes both a coping mechanism and a toxic obsession for Miyagi, an impossible attempt to mirror the man Sota never grew up to be. The older Miyagi – terse, standoffish, happy to dish out a beating or even take one himself as long as it shields him from vulnerability – nonetheless bears a grace and a tenderness that can be felt in his play, if not in his conversation. Where Sakuragi is all surface, living heart on his sleeve, Miyagi represents a deeper, more subconscious passion for the sport.
It’s true that Miyagi’s story, and the programmatic use of flashbacks, follow a hackneyed formula, as does the underdog story. What works about the deployment of both tropes in this film is not that they break new ground, but that they tap into some spirit – something primal, instinctual, transformative – that drives you back to the sport, the work, the craft you love even if it kills you. For all the rich anatomical detail in its animation, what Inoue’s film leaves you with is the subjective; not how sport is, but how it feels.
► The First Slam Dunk is in UK cinemas now and will play at BFI IMAX from September 1.