Reality Strikes Back: Akutagawa's "Hell Screen"

Thanks to a film adaptation that became a canonical classic, the Japanese fiction writer Ry­ūnosuke Akutagawa is best remembered for the stories “In a Grove” and “Rashomon,” on which filmmaker Akira Kurosawa based his film Rashomon (1950), taking the plot from the first story and the tone of existential despair from the second. Akutagawa was a short story writer who lived a troubled life and killed himself at the age of 35, and much of his fiction seems to reflect the darkness of his biography. His work might be described as Gothic, in the eighteenth century European sense, which I suspect is why it appeals to me so much.

The story “Hell Screen” is singled out by translator Jay Rubin as the finest of Akutagawa’s early work for its “detailed visualization.” It also certainly displays the characteristics David Punter identified in Gothic fiction: an emphasis on taboo, a mingled revulsion/attraction to the past and its barbarism, and the use of paranoia as the underlying principle.

Much of Akutagawa’s early work is set in Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185), and “Hell Screen” is a retelling of a selection from the Tales from Uji, from the early thirteenth century. It concerns the painting of a folding screen depicting scenes from the eight Buddhist hells. The Lord of Horikawa commissions the talented but hated painter Yoshihiode, whose lovely daughter has recently been made a junior lady-in-waiting in the Lord’s household.

The story is told by one of the lord’s servants, someone trusted enough to be present at the lord’s personal audiences, and who seems to be privy to much of the goings-on in the palace. On one level the story is a piece of royal court gossip, told by an engaging raconteur. The events he recounts have long since transpired, and he tells the story in snatches, digressing to recount a related incident or to provide his own commentary. His hesitations and omissions are a smokescreen, though—a modest self-deprecation that disguises his expert storytelling abilities. He hints at the outcome right before providing backstory, and seemingly innocuous or irrelevant details eventually contribute to the devastating climax.

The choice of an eyewitness narrator, as well as its time frame, lends the incredible tale credulity and prevents it from escalating into the hysterics of, say, an Edgar Allan Poe tale. This narrator is humble, chatty, introspective, and shrewd, and while he occasionally buries crucial information in a stream of asides, he commands our attention up to the grim resolution.

Another way of reading the story is as an allegory about realism and art. The demoniac painter Yoshihide, while extremely gifted, claims that he must see or experience something to paint it in a way that satisfies him. Stories are told of him dispassionately sketching a rotting corpse on a roadside, even touching it. Therefore, in the process of rendering a vision of hell, he deliberately subjects his apprentices to forms of torture—chaining them up and setting predatory, deadly animals on them—to sketch them as they suffer. This sadistic method sets up the central incident of the story, which pushes Yoshihide’s devotion to realism to a horrific extreme and casts judgment on its morality. The questions raised by the story about the responsibility of art to life, as well as its tragic resolution, recall Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a vulture apparently stalking a starving African girl and the debate that surrounded the photograph.

Akutagawa’s own philosophy on this matter is a bit less controversial, though perhaps just as complicated. Haruki Murakami explains (in the Introduction to the Penguin Classics selection of Akutagawa stories) that Akutagawa was criticized early in his career for relying too much on artifice, for moving too far away from the realities of contemporary Japan, at a time when Marxist “committed literature” was the fashion. The other alternative was autobiographical naturalism, an appropriation of European realism and naturalism. While Akutagawa wrote finely crafted, sometimes experimental pieces in his youth (modeled after modernist European writing, which he read, often in their original languages), he shifted to the autobiographical style in his later years, but continued to craft his stories deliberately, inserting fictional material and using fiction techniques artfully when the story demanded them, and thereby declaring his allegiance to art and artifice. In this context, it’s hardly surprising that in “Hell Screen,” he depicts the quest for realism as a grotesque, perverse obsession that exacts a terrible price.

“Write what you know” is what budding fiction writers are told, and this bit of advice is likely responsible for all the tedious fiction about the quotidian, the banal, the dull. Too often it’s used as a license to celebrate the insignificant for its insignificance. Taken too literally, it denies the power of an artist’s imagination and shackles him or her to a single vision of the world. It also puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the writer to live as many lives as he can, that his output might acquire range and variety.

Used too faithfully, this old saw could turn the writer predatory, or into a parasite, feeding off or using his immediate environment as material for his art. This problem does not seem to apply as much to painters and sculptors, “Hell Screen” notwithstanding, though photographers are more susceptible to criticism based on this tendency, as Carter’s award-winning photograph demonstrates, or Sally Mann’s photos of her children growing up, for instance. The amount of mediation in fiction is even more apparent than in the visual arts, because reality must be encoded in language before being communicated.

As a fiction writer, I have pillaged my own history and environment for material, and I’ve often done it without thinking, by default, if only because I couldn’t imagine writing fiction in any other way. When I begin with a totally imaginary character or situation, it is inevitably embellished with details or informed by attitudes taken from my own direct and indirect experience.

I believe all art is autobiographical, although the correspondence between art and biography is rarely one-to-one. A character might originate from a real person, but will be considerably altered in the conceptualization and writing processes. Very rarely do the people I’ve used (that word again) as reference points recognize themselves in the finished work. In fact, they’re likelier to see themselves in a character that had absolutely nothing to do with them. Sometimes, the pillaging of reality is unconscious. I learn only much later, through other people, that a character and his situation correspond exactly to someone I must have heard about at some point, but had forgotten about. Often I shrug it off, rationalizing that it’s a work of fiction, but sometimes some guilt lingers, particularly when the portrayal is unflattering or objectionable.

The guilt is even more palpable when I slip autobiographical anecdotes into an essay. The pressure to be truthful controls and censors the writing, compelling me to be as honest as possible without descending into cruelty, erring on the side of kindness. Other writers are less moved by guilt, or don’t feel it at all, and opt for brutal frankness, all else be damned. It’s ultimately presumptuous, if not fallacious, to assume that any artwork could come close to approximating reality. Art is artifice, after all. But the moral question remains, of how much exploitation an artist must be willing to do in the pursuit of his art.

I once wrote about my writing process that I write to make sense of things I don’t understand, perhaps as a way of comforting myself—attempting to master in art what overwhelms me in reality. While I object to the use of art as therapy or exorcism, it does fulfill these functions much of the time, and the audience watches voraciously as the artist wrestles with personal demons. It is unfair to reduce Akutagawa’s work into a side show, given his lifelong efforts to master his craft, but it’s also impossible to ignore the parallels between his biography and the darkness of his subject matter.

Akutagawa appears to have been defeated by the reality that he used, or tried to master, in his work—he committed suicide at 35. In “Hell Screen” Yoshihide ultimately hangs himself, but only as a consequence of seeing the extent to which his obsession with realism could go. His real punishment comes before, meted out with a cruelty and dispassion that surpasses his own, but there are others just as culpable—such as the narrator, for recreating the events vividly in words, and the reader for reading them.

Vicente Garcia Groyon has published a novel, The Sky over Dimas (De La Salle University Press, 2003), and a collection of short stories, On Cursed Ground and Other Stories (University of the Philippines Press, 2004), as well as edited anthologies of Philippine short fiction. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from De La Salle University-Manila, where he teaches while completing a PhD in Literature.