Today I’m returning to the short stories of The Weird, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, and this time I’m discussing Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s ‘The Hell Screen’.
By yet another of those peculiar coincidences that The Weird seems to bring with it, it turns out that I am familiar with ‘The Hell Screen’, as it has been read on BBC Radio 4 Extra a number of times in the last few years. However, I have the impression that the dramatised reading was somewhat sanitised as this story seems much darker than I recall (but given Radio 4 Extra’s habit of endlessly recycling the same bits of material, the story must be due for another outing any time now).
Akutagawa (1892-1927) is often called the ‘father of the Japanese short story’. His first story, ‘Rashomon’, lives on in Kurosawa’s film of the same name, although Kurosawa used the setting of ‘Rashomon’ and took the film’s plot and characters from another of Akutagawa’s stories, ‘In a Grove’. Akutagawa committed suicide at the age of thirty-five, and his last words in his will are variously translated as saying that he felt ‘a vague uneasiness’ or ‘a vague insecurity’, and that is perhaps a useful starting point in thinking about this story.
It is narrated by a court attendant of the High Lord of Horikawa, and tells of what can only be described as an epic battle of wills between Horikawa himself and Yoshihide, a painter, whom even the narrator admits was considered ‘the first among painters, an unrivalled artist’.
The story begins with a series of observations about Horikawa, intended to demonstrate his perfection. At least, one might suppose that, for the attendant’s narrative seems to be sycophantic, almost hagiographic, in its account of his wondrousness, but at the same time, amid the gossipy tone, the fluttering evasions, denials and digressions, the artless mislaying of the story – one should, I think, imagine the storyteller constantly glancing over his shoulder as he hurriedly recounts this story, just in case someone else is listening – the narrator also points up the staggering cruelty of the High Lord. On the one hand, he comments that ‘I cannot recall an act that did not deserve our wonderment’ (110), and yet a few paragraphs later, he tells how ‘when construction work on the Nagara Bridge was damaged, he offered his favourite boy attendants as human pillars to propitiate the gods’ (111), which is indeed cause for wonderment, though not necessarily in the way that is superficially represented. It is certainly at variance with the claim that he ‘had a kind and generous heart that would partake in the happiness and distress of all, even the humblest among his subjects’ (110).
Yoshihide the artist is represented as the antithesis of Horikawa, with his ‘vulgar appearance and his lips, too red for his age,’ possessing ‘an unsettling bestial quality’ (111). It perhaps comes as no surprise that he is nicknamed ‘Monkey-hide’. We are to understand that Yoshihide is less than human even while Horikawa is more than human, but at the same time, the narrator betrays a certain awe of Yoshihide’s skills as an artist, as well as admiration for the beauty of Yoshihide’s daughter, Yuzuki, who is a lady in waiting in the palace. She is believed to be an object of interest to Horikawa, though the attendant denies this as unfounded rumour, just a little too often. She is also the subject of intense obsession on the part of Yoshihide himself; he has made several requests for her to be released from the lord’s employ, all of which have been refused. Again, the attendant’s narrative is all a-flutter, ever-so-vaguely hinting at something unnatural, as though he can’t see that the entire set-up of the court is one long series of unnatural happenings. And indeed, one strongly suspects that he knows all of this while making heavy weather of his protestations of innocence in order to firmly underline his hints. This is not a foolish narrator, however much he would like one to believe he is.
And yet, in various ways he betrays his culture – he constantly stresses Yoshihide’s arrogance, manifested in his recognition of his own abilities as an artist, and also in what the narrator sees as sacrilegious behaviour, not taking the spirits seriously, or using the faces of ordinary people when painting gods and goddesses. This is not unfamiliar artistic behaviour; one thinks immediately of the scandalous accounts of the behaviour of artists of the Italian renaissance, and more recently, the Pre-Raphaelite painters painted and married an assortment of young shop girls and prostitutes. Having said that, one has the sense that in Akutagawa’s story, there is a struggle going on between the notion of art as the preserve of the refined, a thing of delicacy, and Yoshihide’s terrifying form of art which bursts through propriety. ‘All the paintings by Yoshihide seemed to elicit disturbing feelings’ (113), says the narrator, and one can feel his shiver of exquisite horror when he quotes Yoshihide as saying ‘It is an unaccomplished artist who cannot perceive beauty in ugliness’ (113). And this, perhaps, is the true heart of this story: a struggle between a beauty which is underneath deeply corrupt and an ugliness which is pure in its expression. And perhaps we should reconsider, briefly, Yoshihide’s obession with his daughter: she is motherless, though we don’t know how Yoshihide’s wife died. If he is obsessed with Yuzuki, perhaps it is because he fears losing her too, or perhaps there is some underlying guilt, the cause of which we do not understand.
Much of the narrator’s story is devoted to examples of Yoshihide’s obsession with his art, and the lengths to which he will go in order to satisfy his artistic impulse. We are told that Yoshihide can only draw what he has seen with his own eyes, and given the nature of his art, we might note another delicate tremor of horror from the narrator. We are invited to see Yoshihide’s engagement with his own art as being excessive, and perhaps it is, but while the narrator is quick to criticise, there are also darker hints as to the manner in which Yoshihide is driven to such excess in pursuing his art.
It would be easy to overlook the strange story told by one of Yoshihide’s apprentices, of having to sit with his master while he sleeps, and the strange dream-argument he overhears. The dialogue is difficult to make sense of, though the references to Hell are suggestive, for Yoshihide is by this time painting the so-called Hell Screen for the High Lord. But what are we to make of ‘Come. Come to Hell. There your daughter is waiting for you’ (116)? At this point Yuzuki is still alive, so what does this refer to? And what is the nature of the dark figure looming from above that the terrified apprentice sees? It is not made clear, and our narrator does not, perhaps dare not, speculate.
One circles round the supposed cluelessness of the narrator, never more apparently evident than at the moment when he is fetched by Yuzuki’s pet monkey because, as we suppose, she is being raped by a man, perhaps the High Lord himself, and the narrator can nonetheless comment that she appears ‘alluring, quite unlike her customary childish innocence’ (119). We might take the monkey’s distress as a sign that something is wrong, but we should also bear in mind that the monkey has been christened Yoshihide by the young Prince. When he protects his mistress, is it because he is the avatar of his namesake, determined to keep Yuzuki from forming a relationship or is it genuinely because she has been assaulted. We infer the latter but it is never quite clear.
It is shortly after this event that Yoshihide asks Horikawa to burn a nobleman’s carriage and perhaps … as he has envisaged there being a woman inside … The story reaches its perhaps inevitable climax when Horikawa grants Yoshihide’s request but burns Yuzuki alive in the carriage, where she is joined by the monkey. Yoshihide the artist’s horror is transformed into ecstasy at what he is witnessing.
The Lord claims to have committed the deed to chastise Yoshihide for asking that a carriage be burned with a human inside it, which might be true, though it may be as much a convenient way of getting rid of Yuzuki. For the narrator, Yoshihide exhibits a heart of stone in witnessing his daughter’s death and then incorporating it into his art, yet the reader sees a man agonisingly torn between the horror of the moment and the beauty he perceives in its ugliness, father and artist somehow detached from one another.
And that, perhaps, is where the weirdness lies in this story, not so much in the outright horror of physical events, but in the glimpses we have into the creative tumult that Yoshihide carries with him yet which he cannot articulate simply as an act of imagination. For him it has to be real, no matter what the cost.