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'Slam Dunk' scores big on nostalgia

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Signboards at a movie theater in Seoul display the animated film
Signboards at a movie theater in Seoul display the animated film "The First Slam Dunk," Jan. 15. Yonhap

By Kim Rahn

Every class had one Kang Baek-ho, one Seo Tae-woong, one Jeong Dae-man, and so on. When playing basketball, boys used to say lines like "Commoner's shoot!" "The left hand is just for holding the ball" or "Whoever controls the rebound controls the game."

Girls were no different; there were always Chae So-yeon and fangirls cheering for good-looking, athletic boys.

Those who spent their teens in the 1990s in Korea will immediately learn what these mean ― the impact given by the legendary sports comic series "Slam Dunk" created by Takehiko Inoue.

The Japanese series, which ran from 1990 to 1996 in Japan, is recognized as a historic manga publication that set the structure of sports-genre comics and influenced all sports comics thereafter.

Its popularity spread around the whole world and Korea, where Japanese pop culture like J-pop, films and TV series were not officially allowed until October 1998, was no exception. Animations and comics had been allowed before 1998, but the names of the characters had to be changed to Korean. So, to many Koreans, the protagonist of "Slam Dunk" was Kang Baek-ho, not Hanamichi Sakuragi, the school was Buksan High School, not Shohoku, and all other characters had Korean names created for the local market.

"Slam Dunk" was more than just a comic series: Combined with the popularity of the professional basketball league here, it helped boost the basketball boom in Korea in the 1990s. Not only boys but also girls enjoyed playing basketball, mimicking the famous lines and shooting postures from the comic books.

Now the frenzy has been revisited, following the release of "The First Slam Dunk," the animated film of "Slam Dunk."

Although there was a TV series based on the comic, it was the first time for a film adaptation and Inoue himself participated in the production which was enough to draw attention from the "Slam Dunk kids," who are now in their 30s or 40s.

Usually, men of that age group are not frequent moviegoers in Korea. But since its release in early January, they have been filling theaters to watch "The First Slam Dunk" ― often with their children, mostly elementary or middle school students who have heard the name but never read the books or watched the TV series.

This writer, in her 40s who spent her teens reading the comic books, visited a theater in central Seoul during the Lunar New Year holiday to watch the animated film with her husband, who was also a "Slam Dunk" fan, and her middle schooler daughter who had heard about the comic from her parents but even does not know the rules of basketball.

There were many families among the audience, consisting of parents in their 40s and elementary or middle schooler children like mine, and there were also groups of women and men in their 30s to early 40s.

They cried.

Many adults in the theater, both men and women, had tears in their eyes when the lights came on after the film ended.

It was not the story itself that touched them (they had known the story for nearly 30 years). It was their nostalgia for their childhoods in the 1990s ― their young days when they played basketball with their friends playfully pretending to be Kang Baek-ho and their only worries were about school grades. They weren't worn out by working overtime and demanding bosses and didn't shoulder the burden of making money to support a family.

While already more than 1.4 million viewers watched the animated film in the 20 days since its release, the frenzy is not stopping at the animation. A special edition of the original comic that was issued in conjunction with the film's opening, topped the bestseller chart in the first week of January at the online book retailer Yes24.

The sales of basketball-related goods have hiked as well. At Gmarket and Auction, both online shopping malls, the sales of basketball sneakers from Jan. 11 (a week after the film's release) and 18, jumped 488 percent compared to the same period of last year, and those of basketball jerseys saw a 350 percent increase.

Even if they watch the film "The First Slam Dunk," read the comic books and play basketball, they cannot go back to their childhood days. But this frenzy of interest reflects how much they cherish the memories of those simpler times.

The writer ( is the K-Culture editor at The Korea Times.

Kim Rahn

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