Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 24th 2010
Episodes 1-26 Streaming
Dyed-in-the-wool punk Hanamichi Sakuragi hates basketball. It's a petty grudge—the girls he likes always seem to prefer basketball players to him—but a deep one. Let the word slip, and he'll headbutt it back into you. That changes when he meets cute and available Haruko Akagi. She loves basketball, and thinks Hanamichi has the height and prowess to play. Hanamichi, quite willing to settle for collateral affection, immediately takes up the sport. No matter that he doesn't know the rules, can't so much as dribble, and is constitutionally unsuited to teamwork and sportsmanship: if playing basketball will get Haruko to look at him, he'll be a basketball star goddammit. But a weird thing happens to him while he's struggling to make the team and play the game: he kind of starts to like it.
If Touch is the honor student with the perfect personality and Fighting Spirit is the jock who is friendlier than his adrenaline addiction might indicate, then Slam Dunk is the class clown whose dark secret is that he's actually kinda smart. Maybe he isn't flawless, and maybe he won't do anything that'll make your heart try to leap up your esophagus, but darned if he isn't a boatload of fun to hang with.
Led by its overconfident dolt of a protagonist, initially Slam Dunk has more pratfalls and comedic disasters than sports action. Hanamichi's interest in basketball is purely carnal, his purpose in life not to excel at the sport, but to snag Haruko's heart. Being an ignoramus, this leads inevitably to him assaulting her crush, depantsing her brother, and insulting her favorite sport with his casual dismissal of its rigors. All to quite humorous (if not necessarily high-brow) effect. During these episodes, Slam Dunk resembles a romantic comedy more than a sports anime. Clashing sports titans are less important than the succession of romantic misfortunes inflicted on Hanamichi; thrills less important than laughs. Basketball figures into it, of course, be it Hanamichi's disastrous shoot-off with Haruko's brother or his departures from, and returns to, the sport. But the first actual game only comes thirteen episodes in, and Hanamichi doesn't take to the court until two episodes after that.
It's in that delay, however, that the class clown's dark secret betrays itself. While the series is goofing off, Hanamichi and his teammates are insinuating themselves on us. As we laugh, Hanamichi's potential—smothered under layers of braggadocio—bubbles slowly to the surface. When Haruko tears Hanamichi's heart out and stomps comically on it, we come to care for the big doofus and his equally oblivious objet d'amour. We learn the rules and quirks of the sport as Hanamichi struggles against the team's strictures, understand the dynamic of his team as he gets to know (often in less than optimal circumstances) the players on it. Only when we, like Hanamichi, are properly prepared does the series let us onto the court. And it is then that its dirty little stratagem becomes clear: It hasn't been larking about, wasting time until it gets to the good stuff. It has been systematically, even coldly, putting us in Hanamichi's shoes. When the game finally rolls around, we want Hanamichi in the game as much as he does. And when it ends, his triumphs lift and his defeats crush as if they were our own.
Even in the heat of basketball battle the series keeps a firm grip on its sense of humor, deftly shuffling the tense and bitter with the rueful and silly. Nevertheless, once the game starts, the show stops fooling around. No longer is the series a comedy; it's a sports drama with a sense of humor. When it returns to school life post-game, it does so with renewed comic vigor (the episode in which Hanamichi and a returning athlete bond over their rejection-rates is enough to rupture organs), but with sneaking tendrils of substance throughout. Hanamichi's growing love of the game is one, as is his best friend (and fellow brawler) Mito's protective regard for Hanamichi's new basketball-centered life. And when time comes to bring the school-life story to a boil, it's no rooftop spat; it's a brutal assault on the team, with their entire future and some heavy pasts on the line.
Slam Dunk dates from the early 90s, and it shows. The character designs (male) are pure yankee, all pompadours and sneers. The girls have bodies and eyes that cleave closer to reality than is presently the norm, and the whole thing, naturally, is animated cel by gloriously hand-drawn cel. You also get a full 90s complement of cheapo shortcuts, including such nostalgic stinkers as montage movement (where entire sequences play out in nothing but stills) and 50% SD rates. Body proportions can be pretty variable as well, especially Hanamichi's—though that is at least in part because he spends so much time in various stages of deformation. The series is definitely fun to look at (call me a reactionary, but I'll take cel over digital animation any day), but the basketball and hand-to-hand action get their impact more from timing, pacing and good old-fashioned narrative buildup than from technical prowess. Even the score is a vintage but purely functional mix of driving tech-rock and dippy musical humor—exactly the kind of do-your-job-and-forget-about-CD-sales soundtrack that dominated series prior to the age of multimedia anime empires.
Setting Slam Dunk alongside Touch and Fighting Spirit isn't necessarily fair. By episode twenty six Fighting Spirit already had possibly the finest fight in anime under its belt (okay, episode twenty-eight...so sue me). And by episode twenty-six Touch had already earned Mitsuru Adachi a place in my personal pantheon of gods. Slam Dunk... By episode twenty six it's done nothing more than provide twenty-six episodes of excellent humor and superior sports action. Rather plain in comparison. In fact, with its simple characters, love of gags and focus on straight-up basketball competition, Slam Dunk is a very bread-and-butter kind of show in general. You shouldn't, however, underestimate bread and butter. Empires were built on that stuff.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C-
Art : B-
Music : C+
+ Basketball drama with a finely tuned sense of humor, excellent lead, and more patience and intelligence than its fun-loving nature might lead you to believe.
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