“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.