Fantasia Festival: The First Slam Dunk (2023)

Director: Takehiko Inoue

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Starring: Shugo Nakamura, Jun Kasama, Shin’ichiro Kamio, Subaru Kimura, Kenta Miyake

Released in the early 90s, Slam Dunk was a best-selling manga series from Takehiko Inoue which was adapted into an anime television series, four anime films, and helped to popularize basketball in Japan. Returning to this popular series, Inoue makes his directorial debut with an accessible feature based on his much-praised manga series.

The story follows Ryota Miyagi (Shugo Nakamura), the point guard for the Shohoku High School basketball team. His love for the sport was inspired by his deceased older brother, whose legacy he carries while wearing his brother's team number. Ryota and his passionate team ready themselves to compete in the Inter-High School National Championship, where they must face current ruling champions, the Sannoh Kogyo High School team.

With the championship game prominently featured within this story, it is vital that is engaging for viewers. Speaking as somebody who is not into sports, this reviewer felt that it was one of the year's most exciting spectacles. What made it electrifying was how the game never felt one-sided, keeping viewers on their toes as the teams change tactics in order to try and gain the upper hand, while the visual style stunningly combines 3D-CG with 2D-animation to exceptionally bridge the computer-generated and hand-drawn styles. Aiding that is how effectively the game is brought alive by the sound design, queuing up the speaks of shoes with the impact of the ball hitting the courting, matched with grunts of exertion to the backdrop of the cheering crowd, leaving viewers transported to that on-screen court.

Intercut with the game are flashbacks to flesh out the characters, granting opportunities to understand who they are and what motivates them. The bulk of scenes focus on Ryota, as he and his mother struggle to verbalize their grief and speak with each other, yet the time is taken to also see former bully Mitsui (Jun Kasama) trying to better himself, the drive of Rukawa (Shin'ichiro Kamio) to be the best in Japan, the caring side lurking beneath the large physique of captain Akagi (Kenta Miyake), and the growth of overeager amateur Sakuragi (Subaru Kimura).

They are a tenacious team who carry such inspiring determination, refusing to have their spirits broken while playing against a team who knows their patterns and weaknesses. Each of them has something to prove while looking out for each other throughout the match, and the time taken to know these teammates ensures that audiences are invested in their journeys. What Inoue has brought to screen is an emotional tale delivered in pulse-pounding ways, which offers a wonderful entry point to anybody unfamiliar with Slam Dunk and a thrilling self-contained story in its own right.

The First Slam Dunk had its Canadian Premiere at Fantasia Festival 2023