Nobuko Rides on a Cloud (ノンちゃん雲に乗る)

1955, Shin-Toho

Prod. Hisatora Kumagai, Hiroji Nakata

Dir. Fumindo Kurata

Fumindo Kurata, Setsuko Murayama
Haruko Wanibuchi, Setsuko Hara, Susumu Fujita


A little girl, Non-chan, is walking down the road crying hard. Her dog, Es, is following her. She finds a large tall tree with a nice branch extending out to the river. Non-chan climbs onto the branch, finds herself reflected on the water. She stops crying, and pretending to be a bird, she flaps her arms. Then …

When she comes to herself, she was in the clouds. She was saved by a kind old man with gray hair and beard. There, to her surprise, Chou-kichi, her classmate, is also present. He is not nice, has never been. The old man assumes they are good friends, but Non-chan denies it. They are always fighting over small things in classrooms, in the playground, and everywhere.

The old man asks Non-chan if she tells story of her life. Yes, she tells the story of her and her family, including Es. The story begins with a typical morning in her home. She wakes up, singing her favorite morning song. Her beautiful mother is cleaning the house. She shares the room with her older brother, who is mischievous and a bit rough.

She asks the old man whether he likes a kid like her brother. She thinks her brother is quite demanding and not always a good boy. The old man asks what Non-chan wishes to have. She says she wishes she had a violin. She tells the story about a wonderful man with a violin. He was a poet and his violin was so beautiful. It’s Non-chan’s wish, but she does not demand it like her brother, she says. “You know, not only he is demanding, he is a bit of a liar.”

One banana for afternoon snack. But her brother steals another one when their mother was not looking. But he made a mess on the cushion their mother had sewn. He lied that he didn’t do it. Non-chan told their parents he actually did and she witnessed it.

Or “Stop game”. Boys think it’s fun to stop trucks and cars by jumping in front of them. Angry truck driver complained to their mother. That night, their father really got mad. He beat the son in his face and said, “if I stop following the rule and beat you like this, is this OK?” This was a little lesson for Non-chan’s brother.

One day, Hashimoto, the class president, moving to Tokyo, gave a farewell to the class. The teacher named Non-chan as a new class president. She says to Hashimoto, “I am going to Tokyo.” She had been living in Tokyo until her family moved to this country due to her weak health. She is getting better, so she is going to Tokyo very soon.

That night, everybody in the family were glad to hear Non-chan was elected a class president. And there was their kind aunt, visiting them. Non-chan is happy.  But there is something wrong next morning. Her brother and her mother are not at home. Her father says he is going out for fishing as if he avoids her questions. Then she was told that her mother and brother went to see their grandmother in Tokyo, leaving Non-chan behind. They all know Non-chan wants to visit Tokyo, but they fear her frail health is not ready for the trip. But, of course, Non-chan does not understand. She thinks they betrayed her. She goes out, crying hard. That’s where the movie starts.

Non-chan tells the old man that she wants to go home. But the old man is thinking. He says she needs to pass the “test”. What test? She needs to tell a lie. Tell a lie? Non-chan is feeling uneasy. In 30 seconds. She couldn’t think of a lie and tell a lie. She cannot go home? She starts crying. The old man asks, who told you not to tell a lie? She says, nobody, I don’t want to tell a lie.

The old man decides let her go home. After angels dancing and Non-chan dancing and playing the violin, the old man and she ride on the cloud to go back. As a farewell token, the old man gives her a star.

Non-chan wakes up to find her mother is crying beside her bed. The doctor, and everybody else are present. Non-chan tells the story up above the clouds, but her mother is so afraid. Yes, she was in coma and wandering between this and the other worlds.

Non-chan recovers from this event. She is back at school as usual. And Chou-kichi is not paying attention to the class as always. The teacher checks if Chou-kichi is listening, as always. But he does not give an excuse that Non-chan is distracting him, which he did before. Something has changed a little.

Hisatora Kumagai and Setsuko Hara

Throughout her career, Setsuko Hara was plagued by health problems. There were at least two occasions of sabbatical due to illness after the war. First she was forced to have a leave of absence for a year in 1952. She came back to screen in 1953. In 1954, however, she was diagnosed as cataract. This time, she had a year and a half leave. This film was the her comeback in 1955. During her leave, she stayed with her sister’s family in Kamakura. In fact, Hara spent large part of her life with them up until this day.

This is not surprising, not only because she stayed single throughout her life, but also her carrier in film industry was initiated by her sister, an actress and her sister’s husband, Hisatora Kumagai, a prominent film director in the prewar period, and the producer of this film, “Nobuko Rides on a Clouds”. Nowadays, his name is rarely mentioned, except in connection with Hara.

In many critical stages of Hara’s career, Kumagai was always present in the background. In 1937, Hara visited Nazi Germany for the promotion of the film “Samurai’s Daughter (新しき土, 1937)” by Arnold Fanck (1). She was accompanied by her agents and Kumagai. During this trip, Kumagai saw Nazi Germany and its totalitarian regime in action. Also, he was agitated by blunt racism toward Japanese (or Asians in general) in Europe. The experience in Europe during this time of turmoil seems to have made strong impact on him, leading to the ultra-nationalistic political activism. According to her own accounts, it seems Hara herself was more or less at loss and not prepared for the popularity and attention she was exposed to in Germany (2).

Setsuko Hara in Germany, 1937

During thirties, Kumagai was one of the most sought-after directors in Nikkatsu and Toho, directing such films as “Soubou (蒼氓, 1937)” and “Abe Ichizoku (安部一族, 1938)”. But his popularity quickly waned as he concentrated his efforts on propaganda films. One of the most well-known among his works is probably “Shanghai Rikusentai (上海陸戦隊, 1938)”, largely because this PD film is widely available on DVD. Even though the film is below par even for the propaganda film of the time, the fact that Hara plays a Chinese girl made it an object of curiosity. After “Shanghai Rikusentai” and “Shido Monogatari (指導物語, 1941)”, both of which featured Hara in minor roles, Kumagai devoted his effort to activism, becoming a member of right-wing extremist group, “Sumera Juku” (3). Apparently this move made many people in film industry apprehensive of him and perplexed about his motives .

After the war, Kumagai was branded as a war conspirator and practically blacklisted for several years. Finally, in 1953, Kumagai directed the film “Shirauo (白魚, 1953)”, with Setsuko Hara in a leading role. This film was also Hara’s comeback after a year of absence in 1952. Not only that, Hara’s brother (and Kumagai’s brother in law), Yoshio Aida, was the cinematographer for the film. The film was supposed to be springboards for Kumagai/Hara families to recapture their grips in film industry. During the shooting, however, the tragedy struck. Yoshio Aida, attempting to get impressive shots of the locomotive, was hit by incoming train at Gotenba station. He died the next day. Hara was devastated. I have not seen this film, but according to reviews, you can tell the difference between the footage before the accident and those after. In footage after the accident, Hara’s acting was overly engaged, which would make you wonder if something wrong with her.

It was only thirteen days after her brother’s tragedy that the shooting of “Tokyo Story (東京物語, 1953)” started.

Non-chan was the second comeback for Hara and Kumagai. Kumagai made many attempts to comeback as a director, with Hara starring in many of them,  but received by lukewarm reactions at best. This was his first attempt as a producer solo and a venture into the territory of childrens’ film. Being Hara’s first acting role after the long rest, Kumagai seemed to have paid extra attention to her physical condition. Her shooting schedule was kept minimum (only for five days, 9 to 5) and her long-time co-star, Susumu Fujita, played her husband, probably to ease off her stress. The next film, “Utukusiki Haha (美しき母, 1955)”, was directed by Kumagai, again. She must have felt quite secure, with still weak physique, easily exhausted, under this protection of “family business”. Then she went on to the last series of films in her prominent carrier, including “Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, 1957)” and “Late Summer (秋日和, 1960)”.

(1) The film was the first major German-Japan co-production. German version was directed by Arnold Fanck and Japanese version by Mansaku Itami, though the basic plot is identical for both versions. During the production, Anti-Comintern Pact was formed between Nazi Germany and Japan. The film was celebrated as a symbol of Coalition between two regimes.     

(2) Many of the accounts about Hara and Kumagai were from “Hara Setusko, Actress’s Showa” by Nobuo Chiba (「原節子 映画女優の昭和」千葉伸夫, Yamato Shobo, 1987) and “Japanese Cinema History” by Tadao Sato (「日本映画史」佐藤忠男, Iwanami Shoten, 1995).

(3) Many sources states that he started this extremist group and invited the followers to his house in Kamakura. I could not confirm this. From what I could gather, Sumera-juku or Sumera gakujuku was headed by Nobusama Suetsugu, the Imperial Navy General, and formed by right-wing thinkers at the time. Kumagai’s name is not in the list of executive members. It was formed in 1940 and disbanded in 1944. Strangely, it promoted the anti-Semitic view and its influence on Japanese. It has been pointed out that the group was initiated by the people who had stayed in Paris, France during early thirties.