101 Weird Writers #46 — Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

"Life is more hellish than hell itself"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Rynosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927) was a Japanese writer active in Taish period Japan and often called the ‘father of the Japanese short story’. His name loosely translates to ‘Son of Dragon’, as he was born in the year, month, day, and hour of the Dragon. He published his first short story, ‘Rashmon’, while still a student and wrote over one hundred more in his lifetime. Depression and hallucinations hounded him and he eventually committed suicide at the age of thirty-five. His dying words in his will claimed he felt a ‘vague uneasiness’. The story analyzed here, ‘The Hell Screen’ (1918), is a masterpiece, with the ‘weird’ always ever a glimmer in the background.

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When Sartre wrote “Hell is other people”, he echoed a sentiment expressed in 1927 by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa that “Life is more hellish than hell itself”[i]. You’d be forgiven for thinking the life of the Japanese author resembled the pages of a gothic novel. His mother, declared insane in the year of his birth, lived the rest of her life hidden upstairs. Bullied and sickly at school, he dedicated his short life to literature, living through periods of great social upheaval in Japan. His adult life was marked with turmoil, including house fires, failed suicide pacts and affairs. In 1927, following ongoing mental health issues, he committed suicide by barbiturate overdose, falling “asleep while reading the Bible.”[ii]

Yet to reduce Akutagawa’s life to the comparison of a literary genre is to do a disservice to his contributions to literature, both in Japan and abroad. His writing explores the liminal spaces, where the supernatural creeps into our world, a world where the devil transforms into a flying book, dragons appear from lakes, and a man awakes from the afterlife with his legs replaced by those of a horse. ‘Hell Screen’, published in 1918, epitomises this encroachment of the underworld into art, and offers us a heartbreaking metaphor for Akutagawa’s own life.

‘Hell Screen’ follows the classic horror narrative where moral degeneracy leads to punishment. In this case, the artist Yoshihide paints blasphemous images of the gods. His virtuous and beautiful daughter Yuzuki is the only person he loves. When Yoshihide is commissioned to paint a folding screen depicting the eight Buddhist hells for the Lord of Horikawa, Yuzuki is quickly offered a role in court; while Akutagawa leaves her story to subtext, her loss of virtue and fall from favour screams between the lines.

Told from the perspective of a servant who is quick to uphold the character of his master, Akutagawa contrasts this obsequious voice with the actions of the Lord. The Lord of Horikawa is acknowledged by the servant as a man with a “kind and generous heart”, yet when a bridge was damaged, “he offered his favourite boy attendants as human pillars to propitiate the gods.” This is listed alongside reprimanding spectres, walking among ghosts and a man giving thanks for being trampled by the Lordship’s ox. It’s written in such a praising manner that we can easily skip past the horror of the Lord of Horikawa. Who is this man who commands spirits and offers human sacrifices? Does not human life mean anything to him?

It immediately sets up the biased narrator, who praises his master, completely ignorant of his character failings. Only one other novel has captured this same repressed voice of servitude, which makes excuses for the master’s terrible transgressions: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. When the servant witnesses the sexual-assault and possible rape of Yuzuki by the Lord of Horikawa, he claims “On account of my inborn stupidity, I only understand what shines as clear as daylight under my nose,” and proceeds to sanction his master’s terrible crime by ushering the Yuzuki back to her room. In Akutagawa’s consistency with voice, he never explicitly outlines the crimes of the Lord of Horikawa; there is the untied nightgown, her unwillingness to name her attacker, and the receding footsteps of a man into the dark. Later, the Lord of Horikawa refers to her as a sinful woman, yet how would he know her sin unless he was a participant in it?

While his young daughter lives at the palace, Yoshihide continues his work on the hell screen. He is not convinced of the evidence of the spiritual world; he’s a cynic. When a woman delivers a horrifying message during spirit possession, he merely uses her as model for his paintings.

“Yoshihide did inconceivably sacrilegious things. In picturing the goddess Kichijoten, he copied the face of an abject courtesan, and in picturing the King of the Magical Science Fudo, the god that destroys all demons, he copied a thief’s figure…”

It is Yoshihide’s rule that he can only paint what he has seen. The supernatural encroaches on his waking and sleeping in the form of fox spirits and infernal torturers. Yoshihide abuses his apprentices for the sake of authentic illustrations; he chains one up until his circulation is cut off and “his thick body, face, chest and limbs had become red and then livid in no time.”  Another apprentice is mauled by a horned owl as Yoshihide sketches the scene. On discovering rotting corpses in the street, the artist sits down and paints them.

Yet these horrors are not enough for Yoshihide. There is one thing missing from the screen: a woman in a flaming carriage falling from a bridge. While you can see the end coming, it is in the intense detail of Yuzuki’s death as the Lord of Horikawa and Yoshihide watch on, that Akutagawa demonstrates his mastery of the short story. Details such as the “the length of her black hair intertwined with flames as she tried to shake off the spreading fire, the beauty of the cherry-blossom-coloured Chinese dress… among the red flames sprinkled with golden dust appeared the girl, biting on her gag and writhing to the point of breaking the chain that bounded her.” Akutagawa is willing to linger on this moment, to see it from every perspective. The reader feels the heat of the flames, Yuzuki’s cries and the shrieks of the monkey as they are both burned alive.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a horror story without a moral. In witnessing the final hell screen, the great priest expresses “Whatever talent they may have in any branch of learning or art, those who did not live according to the five virtues of Confucius, benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom and fidelity, are to be condemned to Hell.”

But Akutagawa’s messages are subtler; Yuzuki, the embodiment of purity, lives hell on earth. By the end of the story, the Lord of Horikawa sits on his throne, admiring the horror of his hell screen, unpunished by the evil he has commissioned. The servant still refuses to believe the rumours that the murder of Yuzuki was “vengeance for the Lord’s thwarted love,” despite witnessing first-hand evidence to the contrary. Having survived his daughter, Yoshihide hangs himself and is left to an unknown grave, covered in moss. Therein lies the horror; neither the pure can escape hell on earth, or the evil, hell in death.

It would be amiss not to compare ‘Hell Screen’ to Akutagawa’s later work, ‘Spinning Gears’, which offers insight into his own perspective of the story, and the impact of his mental health in writing ‘Hell Screen’. The narrator laments that “Politics, business, art, science: all seemed just a mottled layer of enamel covering over this life in all its horror.”[iii]

Later he reflects that despite peaceful places of refuge, there is no escaping the real world. “I knew all too well what sins and tragedies had occurred here in the space of one short year. The doctor bent on murdering his patients by slow poisoning, the old woman who set fire to the home of her adopted son and his wife, the lawyer who tried to snatch his younger sister’s assets: for me, seeing the homes of such people was always like seeing hell in human life itself.”[iv] His insistence that he has witnessed hell on earth infiltrated his stories; there are few with his ability to capture the borderline spaces where the supernatural infringes on everyday life. In knowing his struggles with mental health and suicide, his stories embody a melancholy sadness at such a tragic loss of life.

Haruki Murakami writes “What Akutagawa chose to do was to cloak human shame in the artifice of storytelling and a sophisticated stylistic technique: this was how he lived and this was how he wrote.”[v] His influence on literature and art is not to be understated. He is most well known in the west through Akira Kurasawa’s film Rashômon, based on Akutagawa’s short story ‘In A Bamboo Grove’. The Akutagawa Prize, established in his honour in 1935, is one of Japan’s premier literary awards. Aside from this, his short stories are some of the most accomplished works of brevity, surgical detail and subtext in the 20th Century.

In fiction, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa stands as Virgil, our guide to hell. Only this time the gates open inwards to our lives.

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[i] p. 219 Ryūnosuke, A., 2006. Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories. (J. Rubin Trans.) London: Penguin Classics.

[ii] Ibid. p. xvi

[iii] Ibid. p. 216

[iv] Ibid. p. 233

[v] Ibid. p. xxx

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