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Culture and its influence on Hell Screen by Akutagawa Ryunosuke
Any piece of work which is written by a human being, will be influenced by the beliefs and opinions of the author. It is impossible to exterminate the influence of the author’s preferences. These preferences are propagated by the author’s personal experiences, which can be negative or positive, and also by the cultural affairs of the author. Culture refers to a collection of knowledge, religion, beliefs, values and attitudes held by a large group of people. Cultural attitudes embrace the history and beliefs of its people. Cultural conditions refer to the state of its people. In Hell Screen, we will examine how the cultural attitudes and cultural conditions brought this story into existence.
The author of Hell Screen, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, was born and raised in Japan and was immersed in Japanese culture throughout his life. Japanese culture is a multifaceted culture, which is enriched with sacred and revered beliefs. As a result, Japan is a very different from neighboring countries and regions, so much as to that its social conventions are distinct. In Hell Screen, there are many examples which are reflective of Japan’s unique culture and its constituents.
The narrator of the story is a servant in the residence of Lord Horikawa, a powerful feudal lord (Groyon). The concept of peasant and lords is very much present in this story as it was originally written in the 13th century in Japan, or the Kamakura period. This period was known for the emergence of samurai, daimyo or lords, and most importantly, it was known for the establishment of feudalism in Japan. These powerful feudal leaders or daimyos ruled most of Japan and were considered almost god-like by the lower-class people. The narrator in the story is set on making the lord seem as the greatest human being to set foot on earth as he emphasizes the eccentric qualities of Lord Horikawa along with his moral greatness. This high praise was not because Lord Horikawa was the narrator’s owner, as the narrator was trusted enough to be present at the Lord Horikawa’s personal audience or that the narrator was working on getting a promotion, but it was rather due to the stigma revolving around these lords at the time. The daimyos were believed to have innate characteristics which were impossible for peasants to possess but they were still inferior to shaguns or the “generals who quells barbarians” (Department of Asain Art, The Metropolitian Musem of Art). Shaguns were the people who held the political power in feudal Japan, while the daimyos were the provincial warlords. Even though they were always cognizant of their status, in order to keep their military prowess in check they would administer their cultural influence granted by their position as political leader. The members of lower military ranks would adopt many of the same interests and preferences as the Shaguns. This was the driving force behind Lord Horikawa’s interest in art in Hell Screen.
Lord Horikawa commissioned Yoshihide, an old cantankerous renowned painter, to paint a screen representing hell. The demoniac painter was extremely gifted, and his daughter had recently been taken in as a junior lady-in-waiting- in the Lord’s residence. He was described as arrogant and insolent (Ryunosuke, 301) . The narrator claims that he every single person he painted fell ill and died within three years. The narrator used this “as final proof that Yoshihide practiced the devil’s art”(Ryunosuke, 302). Yoshihide’s image of hell was nothing like such of other artists.
“He had the Ten Kings of Hell and their minions ever in one small corner, and everything else-the entire screen-was enveloped in a firestorm so terrible you thought he swirling flames were going to melt the Mountain of Sabers and the Forest of Swords. Aside from the vaguely chinses costumes of the Judges of the Dark, with their swatches of yellow and indigo, all you saw was the searing color of flames and, dancing wildly among them, black smoke clouds of hurled India ink and flying sparks of blown-on gold dust. (Ryunosuke, 305)”
In Japan, The Ten Kings of Hell were responsible for certain regions where the dead go after death for punishment. These punishments are appropriate to their crimes and include physical torture. Fire is a common theme in the idea of “hell”, in Buddhism the hells with fire are reserved for the worst of the worst criminals as their punishment. The mountains of Sabers and Forest of Swords were also a part of Yoshihide’s image of hell. Sabres are just special kinds of swords and swords are just normal swords. This high density of sword was in his image of hell to propagate a sense of danger. Black smoke clouds are also commonly associated with hell and signal that something horrific is about to take place. Yoshihide’s image of hell is most likely the worst hell can be, according to Japanese culture and Buddhism.
Yoshihide claimed that he must experience something to paint it in a way which is fulfilling to him. Therefore, for his image of hell, Yoshihide would chain his disciples and subject them to torture, including animal attacks, to see them suffer so he could paint them. This would take turn when he asked the Emperor for help for his final part of his painting, which was to burn a float for him with a woman inside to constitute the main element of this painting. But he did not realize the women in the float is his own daughter, he was so fascinated by it that he kept on painting and was unbothered by his daughter burning (The Funambulist). But he committed suicide the day after he completed his screen of hell. His artistic obsession caused him to lose his family, but he was loyal to his Lord as committed suicide after he completed the screen depicting hell, which was due to the superiority of the lords.
While we now know how Japanese culture has significantly impacted the story, there is another culture which was alluded to by Akutagawa. The story does not contain any explicit references to the western world or its prominent religion of Christianity. But Akutagawa does mask Christian references with positive Japanese references, therefore creating Christian beliefs seem less imported by interweaving them with Japanese aesthetics and beliefs. Akutagawa uses the Christian nature of the symbols of bird and the snake to describe the internal conflict within Yoshihide(Wilbert). Birds in Christianity are heavenly, and Snakes are referred to as demonic and are associated with Satan. Akutagawa comments on Yoshihide’s ego with the contrast of a snake and a bird. The owl, which is a bird, represents how Yoshihide sees himself. Yoshihide is arrogant and believes everything he does is for the good. But, Yoshihide’s values are more representative of the snake as he tortures his disciples and was responsible for the death of his own daughter. At the end the snake kills the owl, which means Yoshihide’s values kill the “good” Yoshihide as he commits suicide.
Now that we examined the main themes of the story, we can focus on how the story came about. According to Haruki Murakami, Akutagawa was criticized early on his career for being attached to the theme of deception and moving away from the realities of Japan. Akutagawa started to model his writing his writing after modernist European writing but later shifted to autobiographical style. But he would continue to add fictional content his stories and be attached to the idea of deception artfully. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Hell Screen depicts the quest for realism as a grotesque, reserve obsession that exacts a terrible price(Vicente).
Overall, we can all agree that cultural attitudes and conditions, and culture as a whole has caused this story to come in existence. We are able to pick out why everyone is depicted as they are in the story and why the story is shaped in a way to get the reader to react in a certain way. For example, we were able to examine how the story draws on symbolism in Christianity to portray Yoshihide and his character. We were also able to assess how Buddhism affected Yoshihide’s image of hell. Lastly, we were able to see how Akutagawa’s personal endeavors caused the story to come about. In conclusion, we were able to fully examine the impact of culture on Hell Screen by Akutagawa Ryunosuke.
- Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Shōguns and Art.” Metmuseum.org, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shga/hd_shga.html
- Groyon, Vicenet Garcia. “Reality Strikes Back.” The Mantle, 12 Sept. 2010, www.themantle.com/arts-and-culture/reality-strikes-back.
- Ryunosuke, Akutagawa. PENGUIN BOOK OF JAPANESE SHORT STORIES. PENGUIN Books, 2019.
- The Funambulist. “LITERATURE /// The Faustian Pact of the Artist: Hell Screen by Ryunosuku Akutagawa.” THE FUNAMBULIST MAGAZINE, 22 Jan. 2013, thefunambulist.net/literature/literature-the-faustian-pact-of-the-artist-hell-screen-by-ryunosuku-akutagawa.
- Wilbert, Wilbert. “Home.” Revolutionary Writing, 21 Nov. 2017, courses.suzannechurchill.com/wri101-f17/2017/11/21/hell-screen-blends-cultural-references-promoting-christianity-in-japan-morning-revision/.
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