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Hell ScreenHell Screen by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In celebration of their 50th birthday, Penguin Modern Classics launched a series of 50 mini books to honour and bring to light the lesser known works of famous authors like Samuel Beckett, Truman Capote and Vladimir Nabokov.

These pocket-sized books may be very quick reads, but the stories in them certainly pack a punch and are guaranteed to stay with you for a long time. By chance I picked up ‘Hell Screen’ by Akutagawa, which is the first in the series, and was completely blown away by the brilliance of the prose.

In this slim volume the reader gets to know the more spiritual side of Akutagawa through the short stories ‘Hell Screen’ and ‘The Spider Thread’, the latter of which is more like a parable. Both stories are told in a conversational tone, bringing us closer to Akutagawa as ‘story-teller’ rather than author. They are also cautionary tales that show us how our actions (whether good or bad) will be rewarded in like regardless of whether we are in the land of the living or the dead.

‘Hell Screen’ is the macabre tale of the nefarious yet gifted painter Yoshihide, who is notorious for his obsession with his art, so much so that he will do anything to be the best. The repellent nature of the man is constantly mentioned, his cruelty, borderline insanity and unorthodox ways of approaching his craft is also illustrated with examples. He will stop at nothing to create the most realistic portrayals of beauty and suffering and claims he can only paint what he has seen. Therefore when his Imperial Majesty orders him to paint a screen depicting the sufferings of hell, Yoshihide shuts himself up in his atelier and commences to produce the most terrifying images conceivable – to the great suffering of his apprentices.

“Being attacked by the owl however was not what frightened the lad. What really made his flesh crawl was the way master Yoshihide followed the commotion with his cold stare, taking his time to spread out a piece of paper, lick his brush, and then set about capturing the terrible image of a delicate boy being tormented by a hideous bird.”

However, one image, the crowning glory of the screen, is to be of a beautiful woman crashing down a cliff in a horse-drawn carriage enveloped in flames. This being beyond Yoshihide’s means, he decides to request a true-life re-enactment from the Imperial Majesty himself. To the horror of the townsfolk, his request is granted, and what follows is the beginning of Yoshihide’s undoing.

‘The Spider Thread’ also deals with visions of heaven and hell, but is much shorter and more vivid in its description. It starts with one of the most elegant descriptions of paradise I have ever come across and ends in much the same way:

“And now, children, let me tell you a story about the Lord Buddha Shakyamuni.
           It begins one day as He was strolling along in Paradise by the banks of the Lotus Pond. The blossoms on the pond were like perfect white pearls, and from their golden centers wafted forth a never-ending fragrance wonderful beyond description. I think it must have been morning in Paradise.”

The beauty of this last story actually surpasses ‘Hell Screen’, the execution of it being absolutely masterful. Again the focus is on the merits of mercy and cruelty and how a single act of kindness no matter how small, can give a sinner the slimmest of chance to enter the grace of heaven.

I fully intend to read the next 49 in this series. If you have not read Akutagawa yet, then these two stories are an excellent introduction to him. ‘In a Grove‘ and ‘Rashoumon’ might be his most famous works, but I feel ‘Hell Screen’ and ‘The Spider’s Thread‘ are far superior when it comes to literary merit.

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