It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

To new readers—welcome to Animation Night. This is a weekly film night in which we watch animated films, and it’s also my excuse to write about them.

Tonight I am bringing back one of my favourite films from the Annecy festival last year, The First Slam Dunk! I was pretty blown away at the time, and that has not changed with two weeks spent fansubbing the movie.

So what is this movie? The short version is that The First Slam Dunk is the best sports movie I’ve ever seen.

A slightly longer version: this movie depicts an incredibly intense, sharply choreographed game of basketball—intercut with the story of our boy Ryota, who struggles to live up to the shadow of his dead brother Sota, not helped by the fact that his mother is not dealing with it well. Growing up a taciturn outcast, Ryota finds solace in basketball—though laden with memories of his brother, he finds a new purpose as he and his comrades in the no-name Shohoku basketball team work their way to unexpected success. Now, he stands to achieve Sota’s dream - to beat the as-yet undefeated Sannoh team. But the Sannoh boys want that win just as badly, and they live for basketball.

After seeing this movie you’ll get why.

So, a little context…

Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue is a wildly popular and long-running sports manga, previously adapted to anime by Toei in the 90s. The original story followed delinquent yankii goofball Sakuragi, who finds a new life in basketball. It drew pretty overtly from Inoue’s own balling experience, weaving comedy with tense basketball matches that draw on a real knowledge of the game. This is a very grounded view of basketball: none of the special powers or laser eyes of Kuroko no Basket, because as sick as that is, Slam Dunk knows that it doesn’t need it. Presented in the right way, the tactics and shifts of emotion in a close basketball game drip with narrative tension.

But don’t think you need to know about basketball to enjoy this movie. Because it’s the animation that sells it. This is a movie that’s about movement, building on the techniques of manga panelling—speed lines, extreme perspective shots, rapid camera moves—with fantastic CG animation, drawing on mocap but still moving with the clarity of animation. You know what’s important because the film dilates time and hits those key poses with perfect rhythm. You’ll understand exactly each trick: a character will set up a fakeout and the camera and their body language will tell you and then phwip they whip the ball in another direction. A character will shoot and another character will intercept. This movie is an absolute masterclass in cinematography and timing. And discussions of tactics are woven artfully into the beats of character interaction, comedy, dramatic flashback. You will see what happens and you’ll know what it means and it will look insanely cool.

The genesis of this film saw Toei producer Toshiyuki Matsui pushing for most of the 2000s to make a new Slam Dunk movie to follow Toei’s original anime adaptation of the 90s. Inoue proved a difficult man to convince, rejecting multiple proposals, including one prototype which cost about as much as a whole movie—but Matsui and his team of CG artists kept developing it, deciding eventually on an approach combining 3DCG and 2D animation. Finally in 2014, Inoue decided it was time to go. At this point, Matsui asked him to write the script and direct, as the expert on Slam Dunk and its characters.

A mangaka going into movie direction is not unprecedented—many of the most interesting directors in anime started as mangaka, from Tezuka through Ōtomo to Kon—but it is quite a step to go from one medium to another. And yet you would not believe Inoue hadn’t worked in film before. His script cooked for about three years from 2015 to 2018, then mocap and modelling commenced, all in secret—with the first word to the outside world being a sudden Twitter announcement from Inoue that there would be a movie.

So we have The First Slam Dunk. A film which aims to open Slam Dunk to a new audience. It retells the story from a different perspective, changing the emotional beats as it moves our view from goofy Sakuragi to troubled Ryota. Comedy is certainly not absent, with some fantastic tension-relieving interludes in a variety of clever styles—but the tone ends up closer to Inoue’s later manga, like his wheelchair-basketball series REAL. The yankii elements of the original don’t disappear either, but while the manga tends to play Sakuragi’s schoolyard fights for comedy, here the episodes are painfully believable—and crucial turning points in a character arc.

And though Toei’s 2D/3D pipeline was already set up when Inoue joined the project, Inoue was a very hands-on director, seeking to make sure that—in a rather alchemical turn of phrase—blood would be injected into the characters through extensive drawings and corrections. It helps, of course, that Inoue—also known for Vagabond—is one of those all-time drawing god mangaka, but the film also applies a great deal of inventiveness in moving from manga to screen: a unique watercolour-like shader, subtle but effective digital linework, and really brilliant use of speed lines, drops of sweat and other panelling tricks.

The movie, in short, feels like Inoue’s manga in motion. It’s no mean feat.

Clip from The First Slam Dunk, KA [Sakugabooru].

But don’t assume the CG is all that stands out in this film. The 2D animation is also excellent, with Wit Studio veterans like Arifumi Imai and Yasuyaki Ebara dropping in to animate the flashback scenes with a meticulous sense of space and characteristic flair. Even living legend of the realist school Toshiyuki Inoue makes an appearance. The result is a film that feels seamless: perhaps you can tell if you know your stuff whether you’re looking at 2D or 3D, but it is never jarring, and both forms of animation play to their strengths.

Something has to be said about the cloth animation in this film, incidentally. This is frequently a weakness of CG animation, but Slam Dunk captures the weight and movement of cloth perfectly, a crucial part of lending life to these characters.

And the sound, too! Not just perfectly chosen music that amplifies the emotional tenor of every scene. It is equally the soundscape of basketball court: the way the shoes squeak on the floor, the echoing ambience of the hall, the rumble of the crowd calling ‘defense! defense!’. I had some fun in my subtitles playing with this. It’s a movie that comes at you in waves, knowing just when to release the tension and build it back up even stronger.

In short it’s a good-ass movie. I could write a lot about this movie.

For this reason, I did something new for Animation Night, and tonight bringing you my very own fansub. This is building on the work of many people: MTBB made a good clean encode which handled the rather fiddly issue of converting the movie’s fake HDR into SDR, blowing my own efforts out of the water; Strawberino wrote a new English translation, improving on issues in the theatrical sub; Animorphs gave me a brief look over with quality control scripts which caught a bunch of issues, and many other people on the Good Job Media discord helped with various problems I had, and directed me to resources on fansubbing best practices. I used a lot of tools and scripts from the community including arch1t3cht’s Aegisub fork, Aegisub Motion, and the Blender PowerPin export script. You can read more technical details on the Nyaa page.

All right, that’s all for now, see you here after the movie!

This was an absolute blast. Thank you so much everyone who attended, and I’m so happy my fansub went down so well with everyone, and you all enjoyed the movie as much as I did. I noticed only a couple of minor issues, which I plan to address at some point with a new version of the sub. Until then, hope you’ll join me for future Animation Nights!

I ended up reading the manga off the strength of it—I wrote a little about Inoue’s drawing here. It’s an incredibly charming manga, definitely worth a read if you liked the film. Basketball eh, who knew? …millions of people you say? Damn, OK then…


Add a comment