Hell Screen


“I am certain there has never been anyone like our great Lord of Horikawa, and I doubt there ever will be another.”

So begins the sycophantic narrator of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Hell Screen (here translated by Jay Rubin) whose blindness to his master’s faults will ensure that the telling of the story which follows is not entirely reliable. The Hell Screen of the title is a painting by Yoshihide, an artist as despised by our story-teller as his ‘Young Master’ is admired:

“…he looked like nothing more than a thoroughly unpleasant little old man, all skin and bones… You could see he had a mean streak, and his lips, unnaturally red for such an old man, gave a disturbing, bestial impression.”

Yoshihide is not only given the nickname ‘Monkeyhide’, but His Lordship decides to name a tame monkey he is presented with Yoshihide. It is while chasing the monkey (in order to beat it for stealing a tangerine – an early clue that he may not be the paragon of virtue our fawning author thinks he is) that HL (as he shall be known) first encounters Yoshihide’s beautiful daughter. She defends the monkey using the fact it bears her father’s name as an excuse:

“And so His Lordship’s partiality for the girl was born entirely from his wish to commend her filial devotion to her father and not, as rumour had it, from any physical attraction he might have felt for her.”

(This is not the last time the narrator will have to defend HL against these rumours).

Yoshihide is commissioned to paint “a folding screen portraying scenes from the eight Buddhist hells.” He later says he can “only paint what I have seen” and we see this methodology in action as he torments his apprentices with snakes and owls and wraps them in chains. (This seems to be one of the narrator’s objections to him – “in painting the lovely goddess Kisshoten he used the face if a common harlot”). However, Yoshihide tells HL that that the painting remains unfinished as he cannot execute the final part of his design:

“In the centre of the screen, falling from the sky, I want to paint an aristocrat’s carriage… In the carriage a voluptuous noblewoman, writhes in agony, her long black hair tossing in the flames.”

His Lordship promises to arrange this very sight for him.

Hell Screen is a wonderful story, particularly in its telling: its conclusion remains a mystery to its narrator but is entirely explicable to the reader. Yoshihide attempts to paint hell from reality; in the end his painting brings hell to life.

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15 Responses to “Hell Screen”

  1. Tredynas Days Says:

    How strange – I’ve just read this in the Penguin Classics ‘Rashomon & 17 other stories’ edition. I find it an uneven mix, but some, like this one, are gems

    • 1streading Says:

      I thought it was excellent. It does come with a shorter story, The Spider Thread, which is more of a parable. I’ll probably end up getting the Penguin Classics collection as I’d like to read more.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Nice review, Grant – one that certainly generates interest in reading the story. I was aware of this author via the Rashoman connection, but I’ve never any of his work (well, not yet, but that may well change as a result of your post).

    As a slight aside, you might be interested in Natsume Soseki’s novel The Gate, if you haven’t read it already. It’s rather different in style to Hell Screen – quieter and less dramatic – but it’s another Japanese classic published in the early 20th century. The two authors moved in the same circles back in the day, and I think Akutagawa looked up to Soseki as a kind of mentor or role model. Anyway, I wrote about The Gate the other week if it’s of interest at some point – once you’ve finished your short story bonanza, of course!

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve read your excellent review – I’m just struggling to find time to comment at the moment!
      I recently bought Sanshiro in the Pocket Classics so that will be my first experience of Soseki – I’m looking forward to it. I’m really quite ignorant of literature from Japan and China.

      • JacquiWine Says:

        Oh, I can imagine! It just came to mind in connection with Akutagawa. I’m glad you’re planning to read Sanshiro as you can tell me what you think of it. Turns out that The Gate is the third novel in a loosely connected trilogy, part one being Sanshiro.

      • 1streading Says:

        Looks like I’ve accidentally started in the right place!

  3. bookbii Says:

    Great review Grant. I enjoy Akutagawa, most famous of course for ‘In a Bamboo Grove’ which became the move Rashomon (both of which are excellent). I must have read Hell Screen but have no memory of it. Perhaps time to put Akutagawa on the re-read list.
    How are you enjoying your advent reads?

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m really enjoying it, though living in perpetual fear of falling behind (almost inevitable at this busy time of year). My only worry is that it’s introducing me to lots of great new writers who I’ll then want to read more of!

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Not an author I know, though I’ve heard of In a Bamboo Grove of course and Rashomon is brilliant.

    Anyway, this just sounds like a little gem Simon puts it. A definite one for my Christmas stocking.

  5. Tony Says:

    I’ve got the Penguin collection, and this is one of the best stories in it. I keep meaning to try more Akutagawa, but then I have so many similar good intentions…

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes – although I’m enjoying my short story reading, it’s not only stopping me reading all the novels I have waiting but introducing me to yet more writers!

  6. A descent from Kyoto into hell - Tredynas Days Says:

    […] Grant Rintoul wrote a fine post on Akutagawa’s story ‘Hell Screen’ recently as part of his story-a-day-for-Advent project at his 1stReading’s blog: link HERE […]

  7. Tredynas Days Says:

    Grant: have now rectified my omission and included a link to this post of yours in mine on the Penguin collection. Couldn’t find the link when I posted it yesterday, so did some digging. Interesting how RA adapts so many W. European tropes and themes and makes them his own; this story could have been done by Hoffman if he’d known Japanese folklore and culture…or maybe Poe in Kubla Khan mode

  8. Kappa | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] first encountered Ryunosuke Akutagawa last December when I read the story Hell Screen as part of my story-a-day advent challenge. Encouraged to explore his work further, I somehow […]

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