Carmen Comes Home

On one quiet evening during the New Year’s holidays, the film Karumen kokyo ni kaeru (Carmen Comes Home) starring Hideko Takamine was aired on NHK BS, and I nostalgically watched it right to the end. As the story progresses, Karuizawa, Carmen’s hometown, is shown in natural colors as it was just after the war ended, and my attention was caught by the fumes rising from Mount Asama, an active volcano. The volume and speed of the fumes suggested that an eruption was imminent. For a moment I forgot about the film’s story and copied a video of the mountain onto my iPad.

Carmen Comes Home, which was Japan’s first color film, was directed by Keisuke Kinoshita in 1951. Looking up the eruptions of Mount Asama around that year, I discovered that there were indeed records of volcanic activity after 1930 and that volcanic damage had occurred in 1951. In other words, the volcanic fumes shown in the film were a precursor of the 1951 eruption. The full-scale eruption, large enough to cause damage, probably occurred after the film’s release.

I remember playing golf at the Taiheiyo Club Karuizawa at the southern foot of Mount Asama on a couple of consecutive Sundays in the latter half of August 2004. The first time, I had thought that the fumes rising from the mountain were thicker and faster than usual, and I recall keeping my eye on them as I played. The following week, the fumes were shaped like a cirrocumulus cloud, hanging in the sky and drifting in a southeasterly direction, even thicker and faster than before.

In the taxi heading back to Karuizawa Station after our play, I said to the driver, “You know, Mount Asama is going to erupt soon.” “Eh, really?” he replied in astonishment. Of course, I am no expert and was just expressing my feelings, yet I was strangely confident about my prediction. And lo and behold, at 20:02 on September 1 of that year, a medium-sized level 2–3 eruption occurred at the peak crater of Mount Asama. My forecast had been spot-on. I should think the taxi driver was quite amazed as well. The volcanic fumes at that time and those in Carmen Comes Home were similar.

Speaking of Mount Asama’s eruptions, the so-called Tenmei Asama Eruption, which occurred on April 9, 1783, is still remembered for the enormous damage it caused. According to materials of the Central Disaster Prevention Council, “The flow of pyroclastic debris destroyed and scorched homes and severed transportation routes, and huge damage was caused in the Kanto Plain, from the northern foot of Mount Asama to the Tonegawa basin, due to the Kambara debris and rock avalanches and Tenmei mud flows.” This eruption was a major natural disaster, causing the Tenmei famine and eventually leading to peasant uprisings led by Oshio Heihachiro.

Sometime around 1970 I visited the Kameari Plant of Hitachi, Ltd., where I was surprised to see that the plant’s grounds were surrounded by a wall about three meters high. Apparently it had been built in anticipation of the flooding of the Tonegawa river, which I think probably harks back to the great floods that occurred in the eighteenth century. I can only say that the safety awareness of our forebears was truly wonderful.

In contrast, the lackadaisical attitude to the need for breakwaters and other measures at the Fukushima nuclear power station was nothing more than pitiful. If only it had been a highly disaster-conscious private-sector entity operating the plant at the time of the accident. That wall at the Kameari Plant is forever crossing my mind as a kind of symbol.

On January 14, when the New Year’s festivities had ended, Kanto was hit by a heavy snowfall. Once again we were reminded of Tokyo’s fragility, as the metropolitan region was paralyzed by just 5 cm of snow. I couldn’t help but think back to the Tenmei era . . .