Japanese Smash ‘The First Slam Dunk’ Is Scoring In Asia Ahead Of European Rollout
Welcome to Global Breakouts, Deadline’s fortnightly strand in which we shine a spotlight on the TV shows and films killing it in their local territories. The industry is as globalized as it’s ever been, but breakout hits are appearing in pockets of the world all the time and it can be hard to keep track… So we’re going to do the hard work for you.
This week we’re featuring our first movie, Japanese basketball animation The First Slam Dunk from legendary One Piece studio Toei Animation. Since its Japan launch in early December 2022, it’s amassed more than $115M at the global box office.
Name: The First Slam Dunk
Producer: Toei Animation
International Sales: Toei Animation
For fans of: Chang Can Dunk, Demon Slayer, YA drama
Global audiences are no stranger to Japanese animation and manga adaptations, particularly with the recent success of entries from the Demon Slayer, One Piece and Dragon Ball stables. Often, however, they require a deep knowledge of the source material that’s reserved for a hardcore fanbase. Then along came The First Slam Dunk. A hit in its home country as well as Korea, it’s also got a Chinese release date set for April 20. Current global box office, predominantly from Asia, is upwards of $115M.
Slam Dunk began as a shonen manga by Takehiko Inoue that was serialized in Shueisha’s Weekly Shonen Jump from 1990 to 1996. The original series, which depicts the personal growth of several high school basketball players, has sold more than 120 million copies in Japan and has inspired numerous boys and girls to get into basketball.
An anime series (that ran from October 1993 to March 1996), several video games and other media based on the manga have also been produced. What’s more, The Slam Dunk Scholarship was established in 2006 to support young basketball players in Japan. In 2018, a new 20-volume edition was published. An artwork compilation, Plus/Slam Dunk Illustrations 2, was released in 2020 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the series’ launch.
The film is aimed at a broader audience than just the fandom. It centers on Ryota Miyagi, whose love for basketball was passed down to him by his older brother Sota, who died in an accident at sea when Ryota was still very young. Ryota is a point guard for Shohoku, which has a ticket to the national tournament as a representative of Kanagawa Prefecture despite being an unknown high school, and Ryota, together with his teammates, has to face the “unbeatable” champs Sannoh.
Released on December 3 in Japan, it stayed at the top of the charts for eight weeks — even as Avatar: The Way of Water came out there. Its local box office is estimated at over $83M.
In South Korea, where Next Entertainment World released The First Slam Dunk on January 4, it has also had a phenomenal run, with over $30M. It is the top-grossing movie in the market amongst 2023 releases (by comparison, Avatar 2, which went out in mid-December last year, has grossed $35.7M). It is the highest-grossing Japanese animation of all time, unseating previous record holder Your Name after 61 days in release and spending a good portion of those in the No. 1 spot. It’s also renewed interest in the comics with Yonhap reporting a surge in sales — over 1M copies flew off the shelves shortly after the film was released.
According to Kobiz (via Crunchyroll), the largest demo in Korea has been in their 30s, followed by people in their 40s and 20s. The gender split is essentially even for males and females.
The movie holds special appeal, playing to a wide audience. We understand there was a desire to address not just the fanbase but to create something standalone and independent from the original story that’s accessible to everyone.
While Japan has a rich history of animation from the likes of master Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo) and Makato Shinkai (Your Name, Weathering with You and now Suzume), anime is not a genre that typically lends itself to Western remakes. Perhaps the thinking is, ‘Why meddle with perfection?’ Although it’s our understanding that there are currently no plans for a remake of The First Slam Dunk, it seems a potential candidate: The plot is fairly straightforward, and basketball is such a universal sport.
Recent successes like Toei Animation’s own One Piece Film Red, have hundreds of characters and exist within a universe that does require some knowledge of the source material. While that title and the Demon Slayer movies have excelled internationally, The First Slam Dunk is firmly rooted in reality and tangible daily life activities rather than existing in an imagined universe.
It should be noted that Disney+ will soon drop live-action family sports drama Chang Can Dunk about an Asian-American teen and basketball fanatic who just wants to dunk and get the girl, but ends up learning much more about himself, his best friends and his mother. The two movies are unrelated.
Recent studio adaptations of a Japanese property include Pokemon: Detective Pikachu and the upcoming The Super Mario Bros Movie, though both are more so related to games by Japan-based Nintendo.
The First Slam Dunk is just beginning its European rollout with Italy to be released soon via Anime Factory/Plaion, and France expected this summer (France is a huge manga market). There is currently no word on a U.S. release.
One Japan-based executive explains that live-action remakes of Japanese animation come with an inherent risk if the original author is not involved. This person suggests that one of the reasons for the success of The First Slam Dunk was the participation of author Inoue, who wrote and directed the film, a salve for core fans.
We’ve been told that given the intensity and dimension of the fanbase, it is indeed an added value to have the original author’s involvement.
We hear another reason for the success of The First Slam Dunk has been the changing tastes of Japanese audiences, which shifted slightly during the pandemic. The most active demo, folks in their 20s, appear to have fundamentally moved away from Hollywood films in favor of local pics.
Because there were a limited number of titles released during Covid, people were watching movies and animation on streamers. On big hits like Demon Slayer – Kimetsu No Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train, it’s suggested audiences caught up with the TV series, which then provided built-in promotion for the theatrical run. Though Slam Dunk’s original comic and TV series ended in 1996, the series was available on streaming.
Anticipation is high for The First Slam Dunk in China, a basketball-loving nation that has welcomed several Japanese films recently, despite historical and geopolitical tensions. USC professor and China expert Stanley Rosen tells Deadline that besides the obvious quality of certain Japanese movies releasing this year, China has “long wanted to diversify away from relying on Hollywood only for imported films” and showcase more international productions.
Toei’s basketball story is a Slam Dunk by those measures.