School Radio to Major Tom (Japan, 2021) [JAPAN CUTS 2021]

School Radio to Major Tom was written and directed by Takuya Chisaka as a third-year training assignment at Nihon University and went on to win the Entertainment Award at the 2020 edition of the Pia Film Festival. One glance at its title will tip off the musically-inclined that it takes inspiration from David Bowie and this short film about two lonely high school students reaching out to each other via radio indeed draws upon his classic song “Space Oddity”.

The story takes place in the summer of 1989. Shy, space-mad student Eisuke Hoshi (Tokuma Kudo) spends his spare time in the school broadcasting room recording audio dramas on his lonesome. His latest is “Clockwork Moon” and the main protagonist is Major Tom, an astronaut on a solo mission to save the Earth.

We watch as Eisuke handles narration from the perspective of ground control, his broadcasts going off into space without receiving a reply. Eisuke’s plaintive internal monologue lets us know how his hobby has no audience. But then, a shy girl attending the school’s night classes records a response under the guise of Major Tom. Her name is Asuka Mochizuki (Chika Arakawa) and she takes the story into dramatic new territory with a do-or-die scenario. This is the start of the two relay recording a radio play where, as both riff on the journey of Bowie’s hero, they admit their shared loneliness and unlock a sense of connection that warms their lives. 

At ten minutes, this is a perfectly formed short film that carries a heavy dose of nostalgia and hints of school romance for additional sweetness. The writing is stellar, from the names – the kanji for our lead male, Hoshi 星, appropriately means “star” – to the carefully crafted monologues and recordings that match up the profound sense of isolation in the lyrics of “Space Oddity” to the lonely psychological space they both inhabit. As their play builds in dramatic tension and Major Tom’s life is in jeopardy, an aching emotional desire for human contact emerges as the performers give beautifully earnest renditions of their lines.

The proceedings are restricted to a few interior and exterior sets, the most dominant being a recording booth which is artfully decorated with props like cassette tapes, reel-to-reel players, and old posters. Further adding to the visual nostalgia is an ‘80s-inspired boxy 4:3 aspect ratio and the grainy look from being shot on 16mm film, all of which capture the age this takes place in. The poignancy of reaching out through empty space to touch another person is nicely judged with imaginative flights of fancy change the central location of the recording booth into a field of stars as Eisuke starts to visualize his companion until Asuka’s presence is more clearly defined.

School Radio to Major Tom is a very moving work that evokes a feeling of nostalgia, loneliness, and hope. The aesthetics, earnest emotions, DIY creativity, and the appealing young protagonists bring to mind the works Nobuhiko Obayashi, which is high praise considering that Chisaka is a student filmmaker.

School Radio to Major Tom is streaming worldwide from August 20 to September 2 as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film.