At the climax of this basketball-worshipping anime that was a huge hit across Asia earlier this year, the whole of space-time apparently comes to rest on a single bead of sweat departing the chin of one of the players. The entire universe is contained on a single court as Shohoku high school, whose five motley ballers were the main characters in the original manga, which ran between 1990-96, challenge the invincible national champions, Sannoh high. Fleshed out in 3D animation, the action – feinting, pivoting and occasionally soaring high above the stands – feels resplendently immediate.
Chaperoned by its original creator, Takehiko Inoue, after spending eons in development hell, this adaptation relegates Dennis Rodman-esque, red-cropped bad-boy Hanamichi (voiced here by Subaru Kimura) in favour of the more sensitive Ryōta (Shugo Nakemura) as protagonist. Ryōta’s got tragedy in his locker: his brother Sota – whom he idolised – was an even more gifted player but died in a fishing accident on Okinawa. Now it’s up to this pint-sized but cunning point guard to lift his team when they find themselves 20 points behind.
Possibly Inoue is too close to the material, because he doesn’t get the strategy quite right. Shohoku’s comeback is interspersed with excerpts from their players’ personal struggles – mostly focused on Ryōta, but not exclusively. These flashbacks are too intermittent and never really conclude the broken-family plotline, or anyone else’s, with enough drive to provide an emotional narrative for the on-court frame story. Instead, it’s interchangeable players endlessly screaming tactical instructions, leaving you feeling a bit punch-drunk an hour in.
Like many anime adaptations, it feels over-reliant on already knowing the manga – though basketballers will undoubtedly also glean something from Inoue’s fidelity to the sport. The CGI-led courtside portions (as opposed to traditional 2D for the real-life stuff) are miraculously kinetic, with beautifully shaded character models. Inoue orchestrates it all into a rousing, garage rock-powered finale. But without a stronger underpinning it’s a bit like being an alien watching your first ever game of basketball, with no commentary to make sense of the melee.