The First Slam Dunk [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

The First Slam Dunk is something I never expected to see: a hardcore animated movie about basketball. The sport fueled the intentionally silly Space Jam back in the ‘90s. This, however, is not a cartoonish fantasy. Instead, it’s a serious work with mature themes and a stunningly realistic look. Director Takehiko Inoue’s drama understandably won the Japan Academy Film Prize for Animation of the Year. It screened at the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival and goes into regular theatrical release on July 28.

The story focuses on Ryota Miyagi, a basketball player for the Shohoku High School team. They’ve made it to the Inter-High School National Championship, where they square off against the reigning champions of Sannoh Kogyo High School. As the movie begins, they’re substantially behind. Ryota knows the team needs to whip itself into shape in order to have any chance of victory. That means pulling their focus together and driving harder than ever before.

Interspersed with the big game are flashbacks to Ryota’s life up to this point. His older brother, from whom he learned his hoops skills, was killed in a boating accident. We see that Ryota, as a form of dealing with his grief, has tried to morph into the basketball star his brother was poised to become. The game against Sannoh Kogyo is not about winning a trophy, it’s about fulfilling his late sibling’s dream as a way of honoring his memory.

Having such a dramatic backstory gives The First Slam Dunk genuine stakes. The movie’s emotional quality builds as the score grows tighter. Also admirable is the willingness to explore challenging subject matter with intelligence and honesty. Most animated features wouldn’t want to come anywhere too close to the subject of loss. This one doesn’t shy away and therefore goes to psychologically interesting places, exploring how Ryota channels his sorrow into basketball.

Scenes set on the court are every bit as exciting as any live-action basketball movie could be. The animation here is incredibly sophisticated and detailed. What Inoue and his team do will blow your mind. You forget you’re watching an animated feature and become invested in the game. That’s how realistically the characters’ movements are drawn. Watching them shoot, block, and score is thrilling.

At 124 minutes, The First Slam Dunk is longer than it needs to be. A few sections linger on after we’ve already digested the point, mildly slowing the pace. That tiny matter aside, the movie is a significant technical achievement, a solid sports story, and a heartfelt rumination on grief all rolled into one.

out of four

The First Slam Dunk is rated PG-13 for language, violence, and thematic elements. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.