If there’s one thing you should know about me it’s that I love me some good sports anime… Whether it’s football, volleyball, baseball, ice skating, poetry card reading, gymnastics, boxing, rugby, tennis, bike racing, cheerleading, figure skating, swimming, soccer, running/parkour, mah-jong, wrestling or judo, I’ve either watched or intend to watch it all and have absolutely no regrets. Funnily enough, this was actually a genre that I initially had little interest in until I happened across Kuroko no Basuke. It was after watching that particular show that I realised that sports anime was definitely where it was at and that’s when I started taking a major interest in the genre. This took me down the “sports anime” rabbit hole where I’ve managed to watch some pretty awesome shows, one of which is the focus of this particular article – Slam Dunk!
So this anime hails from the year 1993 and is the adaptation of the manga, which was done by the genius mangaka Inoue Takehiko – I say genius because this particular manga is one of the best-selling of all time with over 120 million copies sold… Yes.. 120 MILLION.. An amazing feat given that, unlike some of the other titles in that category which are still ongoing, Slam Dunk only ran from 1991 to 1996 with 31 volumes in total. Keeping that in mind, it’s understandable why the anime is deemed one of the legendary sports animes that is considered a “must see”. Yet again, Toei got the rights to the goods and brought this story to life in 101 episodes + 4 movies. As I mentioned in the Captain Harlock post, Toei catches a bad rap for their animation but they certainly know how to choose winners that will remain in the hearts and minds of anime fans for years to come.
So what’s the story about? Simple: a high school team that plays basketball and tries to make it to the nationals in order to attain the title of greatest in Japan! Stop me if this line seems familiar at all… While this may indeed apply to pretty much every sports anime out there (since this would be the bottom line of playing sports – trying to achieve greatness), there are some differences here and there that set this show apart from the rest. So this story follows the trials and tribulations of the Shohoku High School basketball team. Akagi has been playing basketball for the longest time and now in his final year of high school he is the team captain. Although he loves the sport and he’s really good at it, he’s never had a team that could carry his dream of making it to nationals – always falling short of the mark. However this all changes when his sister, Haruko, comes across a rather unusual fellow – tall and athletic with bright orange/red hair, his name is Sakuragi Hanamichi and Haruko thinks that he would be a really good addition to the basketball team. Sakuragi, however, is a complete novice and the only reason he’s so athletic is because he’s the type of guy that’s considered a thug, with fighting as his main form of exercise. That said, he’s weak to the ladies (even though he has zero luck with them) and he decides to win Haruko’s favour by joining the basketball team. It’s from this starting point that we join Sakuragi as he goes through the motions of mastering the basics before joining the regular line-up and we get to see how this team tries to make their way to the top.
Now I did mention that there were a few differences with this story that sets it apart from other sports animes and is part of the reason you should be watching this.
Although shows of this kind all follow this particular formula of watching how a team/player rises to glory, the formula never fails. There’s something really satisfying watching how the games progress and how the players work together to reach their goal. Because it feels like you become part of the team, you feel their highs and experience their lows and this is what gripping tv is about – drawing you into the show and making you feel like you’re really a part of it and getting to know characters like they’re your mates. Slam Dunk is no different and follows the formula well, which always works to a show’s advantage.
The other side:
Whereas most sports animes focus on just the team mates and their interpersonal politics and struggles, this is where the difference in this show comes in because Slam Dunk brings in a host of additional characters that actually have nothing to do with the team but are just the friends of the players. Sakuragi is surrounded by his friends (his “gang”) who support him in his quest to become a basketball athlete and always have his back when things go down. But they aren’t above making fun of him either because they’re just those sorts of guys. Other players, like Mitsui and Akagi, also have old alliances/rivalries that come up too. Mitsui used to run with a proper gang and Akagi has a rivalry with the captain of the judo club since both have declared that they will the ones to bring national glory to their school. It’s this detachment from the storyline of just basketball matches one after another that really sets this story apart. The involvement of rival gangs, fights and beat downs form part of the story since at least 3 of the team’s members were/are considered troublemakers: Sakuragi, Mitsui and Ryota, and sometimes this comes back to haunt them. It makes for a really interesting deviation from the norm and keeps things fresh by adding a more drama-based storyline.
This is always a big draw card in any show and Slam Dunk delivers because consideration is given to the characters based on their backgrounds and personality types. Akagi is the serious type who feels the need to carry the team and sometimes puts a lot of pressure on himself in pursuit of his dream. He’s also the only one that is able to discipline Sakuragi, who has given Akagi the nickname Gorilla/Gori (because of his appearance)! Mitsui is the reformed bad boy and lives with the regret of his choice to leave basketball at one point, but that now drives his dedication. Sakuragi, as the main character, is the ever-improving amateur who is a self-proclaimed genius and rebound king. He’s loud, over-confident and has a very competitive spirit – even competing with one of his own team mates. While he does try his hardest, things don’t always go as planned – usually with some hilarious/cringe-worthy moments. And then we have the rookie ace of the team – Rukawa Kaede, who is pretty much the quietest member of the team. Sakuragi and Rukawa are natural enemies because Rukawa thinks Sakuragi is an idiot and Sakuragi thinks Rukawa is an arrogant show-off. There are also the characters of the other teams that are also brought in, e.g. the cool-as-a-cucumber Sendo, and we get to know these guys too during the show because when they aren’t playing, they sit in the stands and give us that inside information so we can follow what’s going on with the strategies etc.
In addition to the sports aspect, this show actually has a lot of hilarious moments. It’s one of the reasons I really enjoy watching this show because some things that these guys do are so exaggerated or so understated that you can’t help but laugh. Like Sakuragi’s defence which just overwhelms opponents or Rukawa’s dead-pan delivery of “Idiot” or “Moron” when he talks to Sakuragi or even worse – when their coach (who also gets his fair share of “abuse” from Sakuragi) makes Rukawa and Sakuragi touch hands… Just thinking about it has me laughing right now… There are just so many moments like this that make you hit the pause button while you laugh for 5 minutes.
This is always a very important element of a show for me and Slam Dunk caters to those who enjoy some 80s/90s style rock that sounds a bit like Journey or Bon Jovi. Sort of sets the tone for a very cool show.
Slam Dunk is hailed as a classic of the sports anime genre and while it can be a bit daunting to take on 101 episodes, it really is worth the watch. There’s sports, action, comedy and the drama that comes along with the desperation of wanting to make it to the top. A variety of characters and storylines keeps it interesting and while there are some gut-wrenching moments of defeat, there are some moments of pure genius. With so many sports animes out there these days, it might seem like going back in time to watch something from the 90s (with associated animation and effects) should be something to put on the backburner, but this really isn’t the case. With a unique approach, this show combines sports and comedy to create a super entertaining show, and unlike the sports animes of today, you don’t have to be subjected to excessive levels of bromance – to the point where you start wondering if you’re watching sports anime or a boys love anime…
If you enjoy sports anime and you’re not entirely sure what you should be watching, I would suggest that you give this one a go – if not for the sheer enjoyment then at least to say that you’ve watched a classic and increase your otaku cred. While certain aspects of the show (*cough cough* animation) might not live up to the standard set by Inoue Takehiko’s drawings (if you read Vagabond you will understand the level of amazingness this man’s art is on), it’s a decent adaptation that’s brought to life not only by the story but by the guys voicing the characters too. Be warned though – if you’ve watched Kuroko no Basuke you will automatically start off by drawing comparisons between characters from both shows, but not to worry – that side effect will wear off eventually. Don’t let Sakuragi/Kagami’s red hair and jumping power fool you. It’s a show that’s worthy of the “classic” title and is one that should be watched by any true sports anime fan.
Image credits: Toei Animation
End: Slam Dunk Anime Review