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Review: The First Slam Dunk

This one was kind of a cheat. The Japan Cuts screening of The First Slam Dunk sold out almost immediately after tickets became available to the public. That’s hardly surprising: it’s an adaptation of a beloved manga series, the popularity of which rivals Dragon Ball both in its native country and abroad. Fortunately, the venerable GKIDS had already acquired the foreign distribution rights, so I was able to catch it at AMC tonight. I’ll just pretend that I saw it at the festival…

Regardless of the venue, the film is a spectacular sports drama, depicting basketball with an immersive intensity reminiscent of Raging Bull’s approach to boxing. The animation, which borders on naturalistic without sacrificing the exaggerated expressionism that makes cartoons so universally appealing, emphasizes such minute details as glistening beads of sweat, the folds and wrinkles in the fabric of the uniforms, and the rough texture of the ball—tactile sensations that make the audience participants in the action, rather than passive observers. The conflict isn’t merely physical, however; through editing, voiceover narration, and a nonlinear narrative structure that offers brief glimpses of the characters’ backstories and motivations, director Takehiko Inoue delves into the psychology of the game. Slow-motion, for example, extends crucial seconds to excruciatingly tense minutes. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the players occasionally move with such speed and desperation that they appear to outrun color, sound, and even the very medium, literally unraveling into sketchy line art.

In terms of its plot, The First Slam Dunk is a fairly traditional underdog story—and that familiarity doesn’t diminish its quality in the slightest. Deliciously suspenseful, emotionally engrossing, and inherently cinematic, the movie is a triumph of style and substance; it deserves every bit of the critical acclaim and commercial success that it’s earned.

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