"However, as the screen was unrolled, the high priest must have been struck by the truth of its infernal horrors, the storms of fire ranging from the firmament to the
abyss of Hell."
-- Ryunosuke Akutagawa, "The Hell Screen"
Japanese fiction is something I've wanted to read more of for some time, and after reading "The Hell Screen" I am inspired by doing this sooner than later. I can't quite put my finger on it, but from a narrative perspective, there is something uniquely other that distinguishes Japanese writing from its Western counterpart. It's somehow cleaner, more direct. The weirdness does not hide in the shadows, but is right there, out in the open.
Akutagawa's story is a dense meditation on the nature of creativity and art, and the lengths artists will go to in a bid to perfect their craft. The strangeness here as to do with a disconnect between creating something that both repulses and attracts from subject matter that should not do the latter. A further point also highlights the role that spectators of art play in the motivations of the artist.
There is also, through some physical descriptions of the artist Yoshihide, the subtle suggestion that he might somehow be slightly nefarious, or at the very least, insane. Or is he? If he is not, that makes his methods for perfecting his painting of Hell even more grotesque, and it insinuates that these are the traits of a sane man who knows exactly what he demands in order for his art to be perfected.
Akutagawa was an opponent of Naturalism, and "The Hell Screen" illustrates this perfectly. There is a phantasmagoric feel to the story; the narrative itself feels as if it is hiding something terrible just beneath the surface, and - as art often does - invites us to look deeper into its potential meanings/s.
Akutagawa committed suicide at the age of 35, claiming that he felt a "vague insecurity" about the future.
Reviewed from The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, Eds. Anne and Jeff Vandermeer