If I had to express how I felt about The First Slam Dunk in one word, it would be weird. The decisions taken when converting this movie for the big screen transform a movie that had all the elements necessary for success into a more jumbled, unsettling experience that inhibits accessibility and enjoyment of the movie for everyone beyond its ardent devotees.
And the film’s title is where it all begins. For a film titled “The First Slam Dunk,” the manga’s final game, a second-round matchup between Shohoku High School and the renowned No. 1 high school basketball team, Sanno Industry, was really adapted for the screen. This game’s dramatic twists and turns, including last-second scoring, injuries, an action-packed end-to-end match, and setbacks, are depicted in a feature-length version of the game.
It’s not necessarily a problem that this series is being adapted from the conclusion, but it throws non-fans into the deep end right away with little to catch us up on the significance of the current match. The strength and character of the daunting opponents in front of them are described to those who are unfamiliar with the series. The anime highlights the overwhelming power of Sanno Industry and Shohoku’s status as underdogs. Despite this, no amount of information can make up for the fact that your interest in these characters before the first ball is thrown and the backstories that give these rivalries weight drive the enjoyment of this game.
To its credit, the film makes an effort to use historical context to enhance the action onscreen. Ryota Miyagi, who has a difficult relationship with his family and older brother, is utilized to ground us in this foreign sporting world rather than Hanamichi Sakuragi, the protagonist of the series. It makes the most sense to tell a story like this by based it on the past of this particular character; after all, his efforts to find his place in this squad and his unresolved sadness from a family tragedy pack the emotional gut-punch needed to keep the audience hooked. Additionally, it gives room for any pertinent background information about the other characters to emerge and weave into the plot.
Despite this important narrative hook, Ryota Miyagi does not play a significant part in this match, which makes this feel out of place for the sake of truth. One of the few occasions when modifying the franchise canon to change the result of the match and elevate Ryota’s importance beyond that of mere plot device would have made more sense.
It’s a choice that also gets at the heart of this uneven film’s issue. The First Slam Dunk can only and will speak to you so much unless you’re already a fan of the manga and anime. Beyond Ryota’s overbearing position at the center of this narrative, the unequal time devoted to character motivations and backstories, the paucity of exposition regarding this rivalry and the motivations of each of our protagonists, and the lack of buildup to this conflict, we are left with an insurmountable obstacle to comprehending the central tension of this crucial match.
The reason the best sports anime and manga are successful is that they get us to react to every outcome like a supporter of their real-world favorite sports team, with emotions rising and dropping in response to buzzer-beater touchdowns or last-second refereeing gaffes. Regardless of your prior knowledge of the story, the anime can somewhat accomplish this thanks to the high-octane skill on display and impressive CG animation, with the smoothness of motion inherent to the chosen medium lending itself well to sport and bringing a flowing intensity to the action that’s easy to get swept up in. It can only do so much, though, without a compelling cause to care about these folks.
The First Slam Dunk, a narrative about the final slam dunk, is all a franchise megafan could desire. It makes sense why it has been such a smash hit at the Japanese box office. Those who aren’t able to recite the Shhoku High School starting lineup may leave the theater contentedly without really understanding the fuss.