Review: ‘The First Slam Dunk,’ a thrilling anime film about striving for basketball glory and coping with grief

February 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Hisashi Mitsui, Kaede Rukawa, Ryota “Ryo” Miyagi, Takenori Akagi and Hanamichi Sakuragi in “The First Slam Dunk” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The First Slam Dunk”

Directed by Takehiko Inoue

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the animated film “The First Slam Dunk” (based on the “Slam Dunk” manga series) features a cast of Japanese characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 17-year-old basketball fanatic, who is the point guard on his high school team, wants to win the inter-high basketball championships while he is coping with the death of his older brother, who was also a basketball star. 

Culture Audience: “The First Slam Dunk” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the manga series and anime films with memorable characters, great action scenes, and emotional resonance.

Takenori Akagi in “The First Slam Dunk” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The First Slam Dunk” is one of the best basketball movies you could ever see. It’s a suspenseful and emotionally gripping film that balances a story of achieving sports greatness and coping with grief. Simply put: “The First Slam Dunk” is an artful cinematic adaptation of the “Slam Dunk” manga series on which it is based. There have also been a “Slam Dunk” TV series (which was on the air from 1993 to 1996), video games and other movies based on the “Slam Dunk” manga series.

“Slam Dunk” manga creator Takehiko Inoue wrote and directed “The First Slam Dunk” (his very impressive feature-film debut), based on his 1990 to 1996 manga series of the same name. “The First Slam Dunk” is an example of how the creator of a manga series can be the best person to also a direct a movie based on the series. Fans of “The First Slam Dunk” manga series will be immensely pleased with this movie version, which should also win over new fans.

“The First Slam Dunk” (which takes place in Japan) is centered on the story of a basketball team’s quest to win a high-school championship and a star player on the team who is dealing wt the death of his beloved older brother. The movie’s main protagonist is Ryota “Ryo” Miyagi, the point guard (#7) of Shohoku High School’s basketball team. Ryota, who is 17 years old, is still grieving over the death of his older brother So-Chan “Soto” Miyagi, who died when Soto was 12 and Ryota was 9. Soto is the one who influenced Ryota to become a basketball player.

Ryota lives at home with his widowed mother Kaoru and his younger sister Anna. A flashback shows that after the death of the children’s father, when Soto was still alive, Soto told his mother Kaoru: “I’ll be the family captain, Ma. Soto tells Ryota that Ryota can be the assistant captain. Coincidentally, Soto and Ryota were born on the same month and date, just three years apart.

Ryota is haunted by the memories of Soto. Winning a championship means more to him than just getting a title. For Ryota, it means making his family proud and honoring Soto’s legacy. Much of “The First Slam Dunk” consists of games that Shohoku High School’s basketball teams on their quest for the championship. They want to unseat the reigning championship team from Sannoh Kogyo High School, which has a star player named Kazunari Fukatsu.

The other members of the Shohoku High School basketball team are team captain Takenori Akagi (#4), three-point shooter Hisashi Mitsui (#14), a former MVP of his junior high school; small forward Kaede Rukawa (#11); and power forward Hanamichi Sakuragi (#10), who is the team’s biggest rebel. In the “Slam Dunk” manga series, Hanamichi is the central character.

The road to the championship isn’t easy, of course. There are crushing defeats, injuries, self-doubt and conflicts among the team members. The basketball scenes are absolutely thrilling and will make viewers almost feel like they’re watching a live-action game. There’s also a little bit of romance, since Haruko Akagi (Takenori’s younger sister, who also plays basketball) is the love interest of Hanamichi.

The voices of “The First Slam Dunk” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of the movie. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Shugo Nakamura as Ryota Miyagi, Kenta Miyake as Takenori Akagi, Jun Kasama as Hisashi Mitsui, Shinichiro Kamio as Kaede Rukawa, Subaru Kimura as Hanamichi Sakuragi and Maaya Sakamoto as Haruko Akagi. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Paul Castro Jr. as Ryota Miyagi, Aaron Goodson as Takenori Akagi, Jonah Scott as Hisashi Mitsui, Aleks Le as Kaede Rukawa, Ben Balmaceda as Hanamichi Sakuragi and Abby Espiritu as Haruko Akagi.

You don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy “The First Slam Dunk” movie, which is well-written from beginning to end, with many captivating visuals. Hanamichi has the flashiest personality on the Shohoku High School basketball team, but sensitive and thoughtful Ryota is the most endearing team member and is the heart and soul of the movie. “The First Slam Dunk” is not just the name of this move but it could also describe the triumph that the movie is for Inoue as his feature-film directorial debut.

GKIDS released “The First Slam Dunk” in select U.S. cinemas on July 28, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on December 3, 2022. “The First Slam Dunk” will be released on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 28, 2024.

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