Fantastic Metropolis

“The Hell Screen” by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke

From The Virtual Anthology

Jeffrey Ford

He was extremely mean in nature, and his noticeably red lips, unusually youthful for his age, reminded one of an uncanny animal-like mind.

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, considered by many to be Japan’s greatest short story writer, is primarily known in the West, if at all, as the author of the stories “Rashômon” and “In a Grove,” adapted by Kurosawa to serve as the basis for his landmark film Rashômon (1950), which in turn was adapted for the American film, The Outrage (1964), directed by Martin Ritt, starring Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Edward G. Robinson and William, the Kirk, Shatner.

Akutagawa (1892-1927), more so than many of his contemporaries was heavily influenced by the styles and fictional techniques of Western writers like Poe, Baudelair, Strindberg, Dostoevsky, and Flaubert. He was, by all accounts, a perfectionist in his style and had a great affinity, like the French Symbolists he admired, for descriptions of physical sensations. He was part of a growing literary movement that centered on the magazine Shin Shicho (New Current of Thought) and was concerned with undermining the influence of the romanticists and aesthetes who were the rage in the early decades of 20th century Japanese fiction. With his contemporaries, Kikuchi Kan and Yamamoto Yuzo, he shared the mission of replacing emotion with reason. Their philosophy simply stated was that the writer should not be overly influenced by either beauty or idealism. It was a recognition of the actuality of the human condition, and the tale in question was to be recorded by the author with a detachment that disallowed emotional aggrandizement or the injection of unwarranted pathos.

This said, Akutagawa’s work often tended toward the surreal, the grotesque and the fantastic. The beauty of his short stories comes from a kind of dispassionate grace, an authorial restraint in the face of fictional situations we normally associate with intense emotion. As Borges said of Akutagawa’s writing, “Extravagance and horror are in his work but never in his style, which is always crystal clear.” One is reminded of the ghost stories of Henry James, “The Phantom Rickshaw” by Kipling, and any number of works by Thomas Ligotti. In “The Hell Screen,” Akutagawa is at his most powerful, mixing the potent mythology of ancient Japan with the stylistic concerns of modern Western writers. It is a complex story in two major movements with a subtly unreliable narrator. The author’s exacting prose comes through even in translation, and there is much to admire beyond the beauty of the writing.

“The Hell Screen” is narrated by a court flunky of the Great Lord of Horikawa. This complicates the story from the very beginning, for although he sings the praises of his boss, it quickly becomes evident from the anecdotes he tells that the Great Lord is an immoral tyrant. For instance, “Once when the construction work of the main bridge was snagged, he made a human pillar of his favorite boy attendant to propitiate the wrath of the gods.” Throughout the story, the reader gets the feeling that the narrator knows more than he is saying, and although he at times intimates that his Lord has acted immorally, he quickly sunders the revelation by putting it off to rumor. We learn that the narrator has served the Lord for twenty years, and so the reader remains uncertain as to whether his allegiance comes from habit, from fear, or perhaps a little of both.

In the court of the Great Lord there is a famous painter, Yoshihide, a perfectionist, whose art is more important to him than nearly anything else. This cranky old man will not let the Lord or accepted customs or the Gods, themselves, take precedence over his art. All who behold it are in agreement that his work is startlingly brilliant, but there is always a sense of the grotesque and melancholy about it. Whereas other great painters of antiquity were able to make the viewer of their paintings actually smell the fragrant plum blossoms on a moonlit night, Yoshihide’s painting of the five phases of the transmigration of souls adorning the gate of the Rayugi Temple, makes passersby hear the sighs and sobbing of spirits and smell the stench of rotting corpses. People both fear and hate Yoshihide for the power of his art and his overweening arrogance. Because of his crouching stance and ugly face, they call him Saruhide (monkey hide).

There is only one thing in the world besides painting that Yoshihide cares for and that is his fifteen year old daughter, Yuzuki. He dotes on her, giving her money and lavish gifts. She, of course, is as beautiful in mind and body as he is ugly. As the narrator says, his affection for his daughter is the only true sign that there is some humanity in him. Because of this, he is devastated when she is called to serve at the Great Lord’s mansion as a lady’s maid. She distinguishes herself for her intelligence and depth of character and soon becomes a favorite of the Lady of the mansion.

Then the Lord’s son is given a present of a monkey, and being the precocious lad he is, he names the monkey Yoshihide, after the painter. The monkey is a thief and a trouble maker, stealing tangerines and shitting on the reed mats. One day, Yuzuki comes upon a scene where the young Lord is beating the monkey with a switch for its most recent theft. The monkey runs to her for help, and she takes it up in her arms. She implores the young Lord to not beat the creature, because to her it is as if her father was being chastised. From that time forward the monkey is her constant companion and changes its ways, suddenly becoming well behaved and understanding its role as an entertainment for the court.

Because of the change that she has wrought in the beast’s personality, Yuzuki is noticed by the Great Lord. For her good work, he gives her a silk, scarlet robe. The narrator has the following to say about this gift, “It should be recalled that the Lord took the girl into his good graces because he had been impressed with her filial piety and not because he was an admirer of the gentle sex, as rumor had it.” Here is the first instance of many in the story where the narrator doth protest too much about the designs the Great Lord might have on Yoshihide’s daughter. It is soon after this that the Lord summons the painter to his court and requests that he paint a portrait of a cherub. Yoshihide does such an amazing job on the paintings that the Lord tells him he can request anything. The painter asks that his daughter be released from the Lord’s service. The Great Lord flatly refuses, and with this more rumors abound that the ruler is enamored of the girl. As the narrator admits here, many believe the commission of the hell screen may have come about due to Yuzuki having spurned the Lord’s advances.

At this point in the narrative, the narrator tells that Yoshihide is commissioned to paint a screen for the Lord that depicts the torments of Hell, and that he accomplishes it in terrifying detail and with great originality of style. Then the story ends with a general description of the completion of the screen, but the narrator begins again. The story that follows is a detailed description of Yoshihide’s tribulations in completing the commission. This narrative technique of stopping and starting fresh is rather odd, coming in the middle of the story, and as yet I do not understand its purpose. Perhaps he has this unofficial close to detract attention from the fact that the Lord’s thwarted designs on Yuzuki may have been the reason for the commission. The start of the next section shifts the attention of the story to Yoshihide.

The painter approaches the commission of the Hell Screen with total concentration, and the early sketches and preliminary brush work are harrowing to behold. There follows a series of encounters that Yoshihide’s assistants have with their master, in which he requires them to pose in dangerous and frightening situations in order that he might capture their true expressions of suffering and fear. One is bound with heavy chains and his body contorted, one has a great owl set upon him, etc. There is also one telling scene where one of the assistants goes into Yoshihide’s room while he is in a trance like state and hears him muttering in the voice of a “drowned man” — “What? Do you tell me to come?… Who is it that says, ‘Come to the burning Hell. Come to the burning Hell.’ Whoever is this?… Who could it be but…?”

This cryptic scene along with the descriptions of the painter’s frenzied attempts to complete the screen lead the reader to think that he is possessed in some way. Who could it be who summons him to hell? Is it his art? The Great Lord, who has been shown to have mystical powers, exorcizing ghosts and having the power over life and death? Akutagawa gives no ready answers but merely lays the story out through the guise of the narrator, pointing in many different directions at once. The ambiguity mixed with restraint elicits an unsettling sensibility in the reader.

The scene of possession is also interesting for another reason as it offers an insight into one of the author’s influences for this story. When the narrator relays the assistant’s description of the painter in his trance, he says, “The wrinkled face had turned pale, oozing large drops of perspiration. His mouth was wide open as if gasping for breath, with his sparse teeth showing between dry lips. The thing moving briskly in his mouth, as if pulled by a string or wire was his tongue.” One is reminded of the unfortunate Valdemar, existing in a hypnotic twilight state between life and death in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” also a story with an unreliable narrator and the voice of a “drowned man.” Both Valdemar and Yoshihide glimpse a vision of Hell. The description of the operation of the tongue is especially like that given by Poe for the way his living/dead character communicates with the doctor narrator of that story. There are other glimpses of Western literary influence woven into the story — the figure of the monkey, serving as a kind of double for the painter, or perhaps his soul, is reminiscent of the monkey in Le Fanu’s “Green Tea.” On the other hand, the monkey has a homegrown symbolism in Shinto mythology. Again, with Akutagawa, there is no definitive declaration that we are to make any more of these items than what they offer at face value.

Yoshihide completes the painting of the screen but for one image that he has envisioned and must incorporate in it but can not execute unless he sees it in actuality. This is the image of a royal carriage pulled by oxen, burning as it falls into Hell. In the carriage there is a beautiful courtesan, her long dark hair aflame, and she is writhing in agony while being burned alive. The painter tells the Great Lord that he can not complete the scene unless he actually sees such a carriage on fire. The Lord smiles darkly and acquiesces.

Not to ruin the story for those who have not read it yet, I will stop here in my description of the plot. Suffice it to say, the ending of the piece is profoundly terrifying, told in Akutagawa’s restrained, crystal clear style. Even when you are finished reading it, though, it will probably still be necessary to go back and piece the “full” story together by investigating the various motivations of the characters. The Hell Screen, in this sense, is a mystery, abounding in subtle clues and ambiguities. One wonders if the evil committed herein is the result of tyranny, artistic arrogance or dark magic. The reader can’t help but try to see either the Great Lord or Yoshihide as the villain behind the resultant tragedy. It may very well be that Akutagawa is pointing to the fact that it is not just one individual but an amalgamation of all of the factors involved that lead to the horrendous outcome.

Some critics see the character of Yoshihide as a stand in for Akutagawa, himself, in their shared obsession for their respective artistic pursuits. The author’s art for art’s sake approach to style and promotion of reason over emotion also made him unpopular with many in the ten years when most of his incredible stories were written. Perhaps Yoshihide is misunderstood by the narrator and the court and what seems like arrogance to them is really a fierce dedication to his work. Yoshihide’s “situation” at the end of the story does mirror Akutagawa’s at the end of his own life.

If you should go looking for this story, it might not be easy to find. The collection I read it in is out of print — The World of Japanese Fiction, edited by Arthur O. Lewis and Yoshinobu Hakutani. There is a collection of Akutagawa’s fiction in print and available on It contains “The Hell Screen,” and has a nice introduction about the author’s life. I have a copy of it somewhere but can’t find it. The cover is red with yellow and blue stripes superimposed over a portrait of Akutagawa. Much of the information concerning the author’s life, I culled from The World of Japanese Fiction and from an Akutagawa website. There are quite a few other sites on the web devoted to his work as well. Should you read his story, I hope you enjoy it.

Copyright © 2003 by Jeffrey Ford.