Slam Dunk: The Lessons of the Game

A while back, I had posted about how anime is a medium that carries more than just stunning sci-fi or high energy martial arts battles. Sure, those are things that come to the mind quickly when one thinks of anime, but that is not all that the medium has to offer. One such style of story that has its niche in the medium is that of the sports series. The challenge of athleticism and the interplay of a team’s members certainly make sports a world ripe for examination in stories.  One need only look at the real world and listen to the roar of the crowd to see the draw and power of sports. Today’s post is about one such anime series, one that roots itself in the world of basketball for its narrative. Not only that, but its methods would become something of an influence on future sports anime. First published as a manga in 1990 within the pages of Shonen Jump magazine and then brought to television screens in 1993, that subject of today’s post is Slam Dunk.

Hanamichi Sakuragi is a delinquent teen with a chip on his shoulder. Of course, that might be expected when he was been rejected by girls an astounding fifty times. That does not stop him from trying again, though, when he encounters and immediately falls for Haruko Akagi. When she reveals that she is a huge fan of basketball, Hanamichi lies about liking the sport (he actually hates it) and tries to act like he is a skilled player. Though his attempt fails, Haruko does recognize a natural talent for the game in him and convinces him to try out for the Shohoku High School basketball team. Hanamichi follows through on that idea, even though he does possess a fiery temper and hates the game. There, he finds himself contending with two rough elements: Takenori Akagi, the captain of the team and Haruko’s older brother, and Kaede Rukawa, a star rookie and the subject of Haruko Akagi’s own crush. Hanamichi’s rough and fiery temperament naturally runs rough against his teammates, but as he learns the rules of the game and plays alongside them, he finds something unexpected: he actually starts to like basketball. Maybe there might be hope for the Shohoku High School basketball team, which sets its sights on winning the national championship.

This is a fun series, starting off strong with some good writing. Its characters stand out fast, giving you a good feel for them fast. Along with that, the series does a strong job in balancing out its drama and comedy. Though there are plenty of jokes to go along with Hanamichi’s desperate antics to try to be seen as an awesome player and win Haruko’s heart, the show is also fully willing to delve into a more serious side of things. Sometimes this may be through looking at actions associated with sports, such as receiving devastating injuries, but other times this comes through in revealing events of the past that still haunt characters. Managing to pull off this balancing act without leaning too heavily on either end works well. However, this series has a unique strength in the writing that shines through in how it approaches the sport of basketball.

Unlike a lot of sports anime where the main character is a natural genius at the sport, Hanamichi possesses a lot of natural talent but is still ultimately a rookie. That means he has to learn the basic, understand how to play the game. Thus, he serves as an outlet for the audience to learn about the game. Just as Hanamichi learns about the rules and techniques that can be used, so too do viewers come to learn and better understand the sport of basketball. It is an inspired idea, one that to me works because it allows the audience to better connect by understanding the game as well as its characters. There are plenty of sports stories that do work with the strength of their characters, but allowing the audience to understand the sport along with the characters thus allows them to enjoy a victory not only in terms of the “why” but also the “how”.

Now, the show itself still does have some flaws. These aren’t weaknesses as much in the characters or the narrative itself, as much as in how it is made. The animation can seem a little lax at times, reusing shots or relying on panning shots to help pad out moments. Similarly, some episodes may feel like mostly padding, with not as much progression in the overall plot as viewers might hope for. Honestly, the series is still able to shine through despite these weaknesses. It feels as if those weak points are more a result of cost-saving measures possibly used during the animation process. They ultimately do not hamper the power of its story, held up through the charming and engaging characters. Along with that, being able to teach viewers about the sport it is following is a great approach to bring them into a deeper understanding of the sport and thus feel a greater connection to its characters. It is a great way to go about showcasing a sports story, and I’m not even that much of a sports person myself.

If you want to check out Slam Dunk, it is available to watch on Hulu and Crunchyroll.

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