Weird #13: “The Hell Screen” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1918)

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is credited as the father of the Japanese short story, and his short story “The Hell Screen,” translated in The Weird by Morinaka Akira, is, like much of his fiction, a blend of Japanese and Western literary influences.

As a weird tale, “The Hell Screen” shares features in common with many of the decadent writers I’ve written about so far, particularly “The Man in the Bottle” by Gustav Meyrink. This is especially true with regards to how “The Hell Screen” examines the relationship between cruelty and art.

The greatest artist of his age, Yoshihide receives a commission from the High Lord of Horikawa to paint a scene from hell (see images of the Japanese Buddhist vision of hell). Yoshihide is not like other artists. Where other artists depict beautiful plum blossoms, Yoshihide has become famous for his ability to paint corpses so vivid you can smell the death on them. He learns to paint so well by impersonally, emotionlessly sketching real-life corpses on the street. His paintings therefore have the force of authenticity to them, making him the perfect artist to execute such a commission.

The narrator reports court gossip, explaining that Yoshihide had one human emotion: his love for his daughter, Yuzuki, who becomes a lady-in-waiting for the Great Lord. However, gossip has it that the Great Lord has romantic designs on the artist’s daughter.

When he is handed the commission, Yoshihide devotes himself completely to the task. He tortures his apprentices by binding them in chains and letting an owl peck at their faces, while he stands by and sketches the agony written on their bodies. He is not moved to pity by their pain, and is more concerned with getting a perfect sketch to add to his portrait of hell than he is with the lives of his apprentices. Rumours of his inhumanity make the rounds of the court.

Eventually Yoshihide runs into an obstacle: he cannot complete the painting, which revolves around the central image of a noblewoman burning alive in a flaming carriage. So he approaches the Great Lord with a morbid request. And the Great Lord grants it.

However, to punish him for his crimes, the Great Lord of Horikawa orders that Yuzuki should be the noblewoman who dies to fulfill her father’s monstrous request. After completing the painting based on his horrified memories of his own beloved daughter burning alive in a flaming wooden carriage, he hangs himself.

Despite the extreme depravity of Yoshihide, it is difficult for me not to imagine him as an analogue, to some extent, of Akutagawa himself. His famous short story “Rashōmon,” for example, is as bleak as one of Yoshihide’s paintings. In addition, the extreme emotional coldness with which Yoshihide takes charcoal sketches of corpses and men being tortured reminds me a little of the modernist injunction of impersonality–the rule that an author must sacrifice their expressionism and personal emotions in favour of objectivity and realism. Akutagawa, a modernist who published translations of Yeats in his literary journal Shinshichō, was likely well aware of this injunction.

Structurally, the story follows the pattern of kishōtenketsu, a Japanese form of structuring stories, poems, and arguments. The closest analogue in the West would be Aristotle’s Three Act Structure.

Rudy Barrett in “The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction: Digging into the Guts of Japanese Folklore” explains that while the Three Act Structure is based on a protagonist with desires, in Japanese narratives, things “happen” to the character, prompting reaction. Less emphasis is placed on motivation and personal desires. In a Buddhist culture, desire is understood to lead to suffering, meaning characters who have strong overriding desires are more likely to be seen as “evil,” while characters without apparent desires are seen as “good.”

This contrast between Japanese and Western forms is interesting to think more deeply about. Is it really true that all, or most, Western literature is defined by a protagonist’s goals? Under examination, this idea appears to be resilient. For example, Odysseus desires one thing: to return home to Ithaca. The gods help or hinder him and in some ways control his destiny, but the story is still determined by his desires. It is also true that the desire of a character is what fuels many fairy tales (though chance also plays a role).

(I am not familiar with Japanese literature, so I cannot identify an Japanese Buddhist counter example to the Odyssey. However, Hinduism and Buddhism share a belief in the importance of setting aside human desires, and this is the case in the Ramayana, a Hindu epic (which I am presently reading for the first time). Here, the hero, Rama, puts his own desires aside when he first decides to go into exile from his home to fulfill his destiny. Rama does not seek to return to Ayodhya, as Odysseus seeks Ithaca; Rama puts aside his own desire for home, embracing life in the jungle. Rama is heroic because he forsakes his desire for home; in contrast, Odysseus is heroic because he is driven by his desire for home.

The lack of emphasis on desire is not all that defines traditional Japanese storytelling, however: there is also structure to consider. According to Barrett, kishōtenketsu is a four-act structure in Japanese literature (and arguments) consisting of an “introduction (起), development (承), twist (転), and resolution (結).” Such a structure in its outline is not wholly alien to the Western tradition. It sounds a lot like the Aristotle’s Three Act Structure or Hegel’s Thesis / Antithesis / Synthesis triad, except for the addition of the twist.

The characters and their relationships are introduced, followed by an elaboration, and then a twist that surprises the audience and changes the way the previous events are interpreted. Lastly, the resolution consists of reconciling the information dispensed in the first two sections to what you learn in the third (similar to the idea of a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis).

Statue of a Japanese Judge of Hell
Japanese Judge of Hell

“The Hell Screen” follows the kishōtenketsu structure precisely. The narrator initially presents the characters in a very matter-of-fact way, as people he has occasionally encountered directly and other times heard about from court gossip. We’re not in anyone’s point of view but the narrator’s. The story elements of the story are simply being told.

In a way, Yoshihide has no desires; he simply does what he always does, creating art, however cold-hearted his approach to art may be. However, his unusual devotion to his daughter is certainly an earthly attachment, and the gruesome nature of his character mark him for a destiny in hell in the opinion of many courtiers, according to the narrator. It may be possible to interpret Yoshihide as having a desire to create art at all costs, an overreaching desire much like Doctor Faustus’s desire for knowledge in the Western tradition. This desire results in his doom.

When the twist hits–the Great Lord’s decision to set a carriage on fire with Yuzuki inside so that Yoshihide can complete his painting–the story achieves its third stage: the shocking surprise twist. This twist prompts the reader’s assessment of all that came before. In the fourth act, the artist reacts to his fate by finishing his painting and committing suicide.

With regards to the third act, it is worthwhile to remember that the narrator describes the hell screen in detail early in the story, not after it is completed–including the image of the noblewoman burning alive in the carriage. The hell screen’s image is always in the equation, so to speak. However, the reader does not know the terrible truth of how Yoshihide was able to produce such an image of stark realism until the third act reveal. The third act triggers a reinterpretation, making it not merely a tragic ending, but a moment where the reader looks back and reassesses information provided earlier in the narrative.

I believe that it is precisely this twist that makes “The Hell Screen” accomplish the goals of weird fiction–a genre invested in forcing us to question our perceptions of reality. The twist destabilizes reality, forcing us to take a second look. It seems to me that this Japanese narrative structure is in a large part responsible for the weirdness of “The Hell Screen.”

N.B.: Another short story that “The Hell Screen” reminds me of is “The Prelate’s Commission” by Jeffrey Ford, about a Prelate who hires a man to go on a quest to hell to paint the devil himself. There are some parallels, including the fact the painter must commit a murder in order to accomplish his goal, much as Yuzuki must die to complete Yoshihide’s painting.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “Unseen – Unfeared” by Francis Stevens (a.k.a. Gertrude Barrows Bennett), a member of the Lovecraft circle and the first major female American writer of science fiction and fantasy.

2 thoughts on “Weird #13: “The Hell Screen” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1918)

  1. Gabriel McCarthy

    Hey Matthew, I’m currently an English student at McGill. I’m not sure how I stumbled across your blog (I think I found your essay on Almasy?) but I’m glad I did. this content is golden! I love weird stuff! Weird authors and weird writing and weird stories. thank you! I will be taking a course on Michael Ondaatje next semester with Prof. Leckler. I could rave all day about Ondaatje, but to put it simply, he’s the reason why I’m an English major and the reason why I want to write a novel someday. Anyway, cheers. You’ve earned a fan!

    1. Cool! I’m glad that you really appreciate my efforts with this blog. Prof. Lecker’s poetry courses really taught me a lot about how to hone my critical voice. You’ll learn a lot from him.

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