Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Japan Cuts ’23: The First Slam Dunk

Do you miss the joy of basketball, before the NBA became consumed with the pursuit of money from China? Ryota Miyagi and his teammates do not necessarily like each other, but they play with a pure love for the game. Despite their talent, nobody gives Okinawan students much of a chance against the defending Japanese high school champions, not even their fans, in Takehiko Inoue’s The First Slam Dunk, an animated adaptation of his manga, which screens as the opening night film of the 2023 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

As we see in flashbacks, Miyagi idolized his older brother Sota, who was one of the top basketball prospects in Japan. Tragically, Sota was lost in a boating accident, devastating Ryota. As a tribute to his older brother, Miyagi obsessively pursues his hoop dreams, even though his single mother has her reservations regarding the emotional toll.

Throughout their game against Sannoh, Miyagi keeps flashing back to memories of his brother. He also revisits some of his first encounters with his Shohoku teammates, like their outside shooter, who was once a bully, but Miyagi won him over, by taking his worst beating like a man.

Miyagi is quick, but undersized, so he struggles against Sannoh’s press. Their big man also gets into the head of Shohoku’s center. However, Miyagi’s Zen-like coach has faith and a knack for making the right moves.

The simplicity of
Slam Dunk is the secret of its success. Essentially, it just spans the duration of the game, periodically interrupted by flashbacks, with a brief epilogue that brings home all the emotions driving Miyagi. Over time, Inoue subtly develops the characters of Miyagi’s teammates, largely through the way they play the game. The “illustrated”-look of the animation is also quite stylish, especially the Okinawa backdrops.

First Slam Dunk is probably the best basketball film since Linsanity and the best basketball narrative feature since maybe Hoosiers. It is exactly what the sport desperately needs: some heart, with integrity. For everyone who missed Lonely Castle in the Mirror, it will also be the best animated film they see this summer. Very highly recommended, The First Slam Dunk screens tonight (7/26) as the opening night selection of Japan Cuts and it opens this Friday (7/28) in theaters (from GKIDS), including the Village East in New York.