Takehiko Inoue’s ‘Slam Dunk’ has sold over 170m copies. Here’s why it’s great

For 3 decades, Inoue's grounded, action-packed basketball story has exhilarated fans of both comics and sports

Sajid Khan
Published : 12 Jan 2023, 12:01 PM
Updated : 12 Jan 2023, 12:01 PM

Jan 12 is the birthday of Takehiko Inoue, the famous Japanese manga artist.

Feb 8, 1991, saw the release of the first volume of Slam Dunk. A little over 30 years later, the series has sold 170 million copies worldwide. Written and illustrated by Takehiko Inoue, the 31-volume manga was later adapted into a popular anime and five films.

Slam Dunk is the quintessential sports story – an underdog team filled with relatable characters facing off against memorable rivals in superb on-the-court action. It’s a classic tale told well, with a silly sense of humour to offset some of the more po-faced ridiculousness on offer during the actual matches. But what makes the manga so particular is its grounded texture, its relatability and the deep, abiding love of the sport apparent in every panel.

Drawing upon his own memories of playing basketball in his youth, Inoue gives the moment-to-moment action a sturdy physicality. Bodies move smoothly, but they follow the mechanics of bone structure and musculature. Though his panel layouts and compositions start from this baseline of realism but add drama with their flair and dynamism. The result is an excellent synthesis – the reader internalises the physical exertion and difficulty of playing the kind of game we see on the page but feels the tangible weight of the emotional stakes at the same time. The result is that, over the course of the games, the tension ramps up in intensity and, by the end of each showdown, the result feels satisfying.

This sense of balance extends off the court as well. Our protagonist, Sakuragi Hanamichi, is both likeable and infuriating. A school delinquent who dreams of romance, Hanamichi falls for Haruko Akagi, a gigantic basketball fan. In his overwhelming desire to catch her attention, he joins the basketball team.

Hanamichi’s antics are both hilarious and painfully familiar. Many high school boys will immediately understand that particular mix of brash bravado, burning desire to compete, and vulnerable emotional core. It is, at times, worryingly close to real life. So, even though readers will shake their heads at his foolishness, that feeling is shot through with a kind of understanding. It’s hard not to root for him to get his act together.

The way his character is set up is also essential to the way Slam Dunk introduces us to the sport of basketball. As a street fighter, Hanamichi is in top physical condition. He has the natural ability to be great in whatever sport he puts his mind to. But he finds that the court is far different from the streets and he has to learn and practice to overcome his deficiencies in knowledge and skill.

Slam Dunk is unafraid of taking the time to show that process. Hanamichi has to practice and struggle to be at a level where he can even play in a proper match. It’s long and arduous. But the comic also captures the joy of making your first layup or hitting a series of jumpers. As Hanamichi develops his skills, he also develops a love for the game - for the thrill of competition, the camaraderie of teamwork, and the satisfaction of pushing yourself to your best. And, accordingly, he grows as a person while showcasing his endless determination.

Like Hanamichi, readers also go on a novice’s journey to falling in love with the sport, its concepts and its nuances. They are drawn into a world they may not have been familiar with. No wonder then that Slam Dunk has also had a strong influence on basketball fandom.

Basketball isn’t the most popular sport in Asia. The fans who do exist often cite US pop culture imports or the emergence of superstars like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant as the starting point of their fandom. 

But in Japan, an entire generation of players and fans grew up on Slam Dunk in the 1990s, popularising the sport across the country. Not only did the manga lead to its own animated series, action figures, and merchandise, it had a massive impact on creating enthusiasm and recognition for the sport. A 2021 survey by Japan’s TV Asahi found that Slam Dunk was the third most popular manga of all time, behind only One Piece and Demon Slayer.

Inoue’s influence on the basketball scene has led to him being recognised several times by the Japan Basketball Association. His publisher Shueisha has also put together the Slam Dunk Scholarship Programme for young athletes. This recognition even extends to those who play in the NBA. Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards, the first Japanese-born player ever drafted in the first round of the NBA, cites Slam Dunk as an inspiration, especially when he was growing up. Yuta Watanabe from the Brooklyn Nets has a similar story about the manga.

It has been over 25 years since Slam Dunk ended, concluding on an open-ended and bittersweet note. Aside from a short epilogue in 2004, Inoue seemed to have put the series behind him, focusing his efforts on the martial arts manga Vagabond and the wheelchair basketball series Real. But just last month, Japan saw the release of The First Slam Dunk, an animated movie written and directed by Inoue that continues the story of the manga. 

It remains to be seen whether the film will usher in another era of appreciation for Slam Dunk, but the profound impact of Inoue’s manga cannot be denied.

This article was written for Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.