|Original title||地獄変 (Jigokuhen)|
Seiji M. Lippitt,
|Publisher||Iwanami Shoten Publishing|
Published in English
Hell Screen (地獄変 Jigokuhen?) is a short story written by Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. It was originally published in 1918 as a serialization in two newspapers. It was later published in a collection of Akutagawa short stories, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke zenshū.
Hell Screen was first translated into English by W.H.H. Norman in 1948, in his collection of Akutagawa short stories Hell Screen and Other Stories. Numerous variant translations have followed, including the most recent one translated by Jay Rubin and published by Penguin Group.
Hell Screen is narrated by an uninvolved servant who witnesses or hears of the events. The plot of Hell Screen centers on the artist Yoshihide. Yoshihide is considered “the greatest painter in the land”, and is often commissioned to create works for the Lord of Horikawa, who also employs Yoshihide’s daughter in his mansion. When Yoshihide is instructed to create a screen depicting the Buddhist hell, he proceeds to inflict tortures upon his apprentices, for he cannot effectively paint anything he has not seen. The story climaxes when Yoshihide asks the lord to burn a beautiful lady in a carriage so he can finish the screen. The lord concedes, but, in a macabre twist, Yoshihide must watch as his daughter Yuzuki and her monkey are the ones who burn. The story ends with the magnificently horrible screen completed, and Yoshihide’s suicide.
The work follows one of Akutagawa’s major styles: the updating of ancient tales to reflect modern psychology. One major psychological theme is artistic obsession, as Makoto Ueda puts it: “For Akutagawa the dilemma was insoluble: if the artist chooses to place his art ahead of his life, in the end he must suffer the destruction of his life”. The story is also an examination of Akutagawa's own devotion to his work. Another theme is the objectivity of truth, as the narrator, a servant of the Lord of Horikawa, repeatedly ignores the physical attraction the Lord has for Yuzuki, despite overwhelming evidence. The servant even refuses to believe his own eyes when he witnesses the Lord forcing himself on Yuzuki. At the stories end, the servant proclaims:
“Word soon spread that His Lordship had burned the carriage that night in the Palace of the Melting Snows, and there seem to have been many who were highly critical of the event. First of all came the question of Yoshihide’s daughter: why had his Lordship chosen to burn her alive? The rumor most often heard was that he had done it out of spite for her rejection of his love. I am certain, however, that he did it to punish the twisted personality of an artist who would go so far as to burn a carriage and kill a human being to complete the painting of a screen. In fact, I overheard His Lordship saying as much himself”.
Multiple film productions and Kabuki based on Hell Screen have been produced, including:
- Jigoku-hen, a 1953 Kabuki dramatized by Yukio Mishima.
- Portrait of Hell, a 1969 movie produced by Toho
- A 1962 NHK broadcast television adaptation
- 2009 Episode 12 of the Aoi Bungaku animated series directed by Atsuko Ishizuka
- 1994 Ukrainian composer Victoria Poleva wrote the ballet Gagaku, based on Akutagawa's Hell Screen
- Rubin, Jay. "Chronology." Rashōmon and 17 Other Stories. By Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. xi–xvii.
- Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke. Akutagawa Ryūnosuke zenshū. Ed. Toshirō Kōno. 24 vols. Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1995–8.
- Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke. Hell Screen and Other Stories. Trans. W.H.H. Norman. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1948.
- Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. "Hell Screen." 1918. Rashōmon and 17 Other Stories. Trans. Jay Rubin. New York City: Penguin Group, 2006. 3–9.
- "Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892–1927)." Author's Calendar. 2002. 20 April 2008
- Ueda, Makoto. Matsuo Bashō. Twayne's World Authors Series. New York: Twayne, 1970.