I’m departing from the usual format of this blog, in that I’m going to talk about a single short story which isn’t even in the Williamsburg Regional Library’s collection. Apologies in advance – anyone who wants to read “Hell Screen” is going to have to go to Shoreline Community College’s scanned file and read it online.
Ryunosuke Akutagawa is not well-known to most Western readers, although many would know two of his stories from film history. He contributed the title Rashomon to Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, but the film has nothing to do with the original story. For that, Kurosawa adopted themes from Akutagawa’s story “In the Grove“, which tells the tale of a crime from the viewpoints of 7 people.
“Hell Screen” shares little with Akutagawa’s stories “Rashomon” and “In the Grove” except the time period (ancient Japan). The story is narrated by a nameless person – indeed, there are few clues as to the age or sex of the teller, although the critic who introduces the story in my edition says it is a young woman. The teller served the Grand Lord Emperor Horikawa at court, and was witness to many of the events of the tale, but also reports hearsay about events out of her (his?) sight. And what events they are – a mocked and feared artist, his beautiful daughter, and the Grand Lord tragically clash over ideas of duty and honor versus the boundaries of artistic genius.
Yoshihide is a brilliant artist whose paintings are reputed to have sinister supernatural capabilities. His daughter serves in the Grand Lord’s household, and gossip has it that he is in love with her, although the Lord’s defenders (among them the teller) insist that his attentions to her are pure. Nonetheless, when Yoshihide asks that she be released and returned to his household, the Lord reacts with anger. Eventually, the Grand Lord commissions Yoshihide to paint a screen depicting the Buddhist underworld, a task that the painter takes to with relish. Feeling the need to capture his vision with real models, he torments his apprentices and paints their reactions. But when he needs a model for the central image of the screen, the Grand Lord indulges his horrible idea to finalize his masterpiece.
Akutagawa’s story suggested to me images from Albrecht Durer and Michelangelo’s Last Judgement filtered through Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Hopfrog“. (It turns out that Akutagawa studied Poe, which may have influenced parts of the story.) Akutagawa uses the story to probe the limits of the artist’s need to execute the image he holds in his mind, the cost to the artist, the purity society wants to see in its artists, and its disappointment in their human failings. These were all personal issues to Akutagawa – in the years after he wrote “Hell Screen” he would suffer a mental breakdown and eventually commit suicide after recording the increasingly hellish interior world he lived in. His body of work is still considered one of the finest in Japanese literature, and the Akutagawa Prize is the most prestigious in Japanese letters.
Although we don’t own any collections that include “Hell Screen”, you can check the WRL catalog for Exotic Japanese Stories, a collection of 16 Akutagawa tales.