I edited this essay in the morning and would appreciate it if this one was considered because it has more up to date citations and a conclusion paragraph.
Ryonosuke Akutagawa’s “Hell Screen” published in 1918 in Tokyo tells the story of a crazed artist commissioned to paint the Buddhist hell. The protagonist, Yoshihide, becomes so devoted to painting the screen that he sacrifices his own daughter in the process. The story contains no explicit quotations from the Bible but alludes to Biblical themes and symbols such as the Immaculate Conception and the contrast between birds and snakes as Akutagawa comments on Yoshihide’s ego.
Scholars of Japanese literature like Fuminobu Murakami, author of “Ideology and Narrative in Japanese Literature”, agree that Akutagawa’s writing blends traditional Japanese themes with Christian ones as Murakami compares “Hell Screen” to another Akutagawa story, “The Martyr”. According to Murakami, both stories were “written just before his suicide…[t]he the period when he was interested in martyrs” (40). He compares Akutagawa’s desire to describe the “conquest of egoism by art” which entails “destroying the existing ideological order and values and establishing new ones” (40). In other words, Murakami claims that Yoshihide’s unfaltering devotion to creating the Hell Screen was a rejection of the values established by religion and a creation of Yoshihide’s own values. He believes that Akutagawa was commenting on the intersection of egoism and religious values at a time where he was obsessed with Christianity.
Akutagawa uses Christian themes in Japanese literature which is surprising because Ian Buruma describes Christianity’s harsh suppression in Japan. Buruma says “Christianity never had a chance in Japan” because in 1638: the “converts were massacred”, “foreign missionaries expelled” and “all foreign books assumed to contain a Christian message banned” (15). Buruma describes a Japanese government that feared the powerful influence of religion and the opposing values of unofficial state religions. In early Japan, western Christian values opposed the traditional Tokugawa shogunate resulting in Christianity being smothered. Christianity reentered Japan in the shadow of Shintoism and Buddhism when the nation opened its doors to foreign interaction with Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1853, but that does not erase the two hundred fifteen years where Christianity was brutally silenced (Buruma).
“Hell Screen” bypasses the dark history of Japan and Christianity by masking the Christian references with more attractive and less intimidating Japanese references. Akutagawa blends Buddhist beliefs and historic Japanese images to make Christianity seem like less of a foreign import and more palatable and interwoven with Japanese aesthetics and beliefs.
Akutagawa references symbols of Japanese honor and respect in “Hell Screen” to create positive associations between the audience and the reading. These symbols elicit similar feelings of honor as Akutagawa’s Japanese audience reads about Japanese historical icons. Akutagawa references the masters of Japanese art to prove that Yoshihide was disliked by the other painters. Akutagawa says that other artists “rhapsodized over the work of the old masters such as Kawanari or Kanaoka” (48). Akutagawa uses this tactic of name-dropping in “Hell Screen” intentionally as it raises his own ethos as a writer while the positive feelings towards the masters heighten the story’s pathos. Akutagawa creates an emotional connection using the importance of values like respect and honor in Japanese society to strengthen the audience’s reading experience and facilitate discussing foreign ideas.
The popularity of Buddhist deities in “Hell Screen” creates a relationship where Akutagawa can use these household names to influence the audience. He expresses that Yoshihide, “in painting the lovely goddess Kisshoten… used the face of a common harlot, and to portray the mighty flame-draped Fudo, his model was a criminal” (Akutagawa 48). The Buddhist deities emphasize the way that Akutagawa wants the audience to feel towards Yoshihide. He takes advantage of the fact that Buddhism has many Japanese followers and uses the reader’s understanding of these gods to comment on Yoshihide’s character. He describes the goddess as lovely and the god as mighty creating positive associations that the audience relate to. In relation to the entire short story, this reference to Buddhist deities connects Akutagawa to his audience making his writing more relatable and establishing comfort with the audience.
Akutagawa’s reference to the Guardian Deity of the West epitomizes the weaving of Buddhist and Christian cultures that deliver Christian themes to a predominantly Shinto and Buddhist audience. Akutagawa begins telling the story by describing the event that caused His Lordship to gain his divine quality:
In a dream before His Lordship was born, Her Maternal Ladyship saw the awesomely armed Guardian Deity of the West- or so people say. In any case, His Lordship seemed to have innate qualities that distinguished him from ordinary human beings. (42)
Akutagawa fabricates this story of conception for the fictional Lord of Horikawa. Throughout the story, His Lordship denatures as a character from this grandiose figure to an ordinary man burdened by sin. There is a blending of Buddhist myth and Christian symbolism that strengthens the idea that His Lordship is divine. But, this blending also exposes the Japanese audience to the important origin of His Lordship’s divinity by paralleling his mother’s dream to the Immaculate Conception. The Christian story says the Angel Gabriel appears before the Virgin Mary in a dream and tells her that she will be giving birth to the son of God. This is one of the most symbolic moments in Christian faith spotlighting the faith and purity of the Virgin Mary and the divinity of Jesus. In “Hell Screen”, the Guardian Deity of the West, Komokuten, appears before His Lordship’s mother resulting in his divinity. Komokuten is one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Japanese Buddhism, and more specifically is the enforcer of Buddhism making sure the Japanese people remain faithful (Four Heavenly Kings). This important figure in Buddhist myth preserves Hell Screen’s Buddhist face in the midst of strong Christian images. The relationship between the west and His Lordship’s divinity emphasize the importance of the story’s themes without explicitly comparing His Lordship to Jesus Christ. This use of intertwined religious symbols highlights the importance of His Lordship as a divine being, but more importantly, presents a central Christian symbol in a manner that is receptive to the Japanese audience.
“Hell Screen” includes Christian images like the conflict of heavenly birds and demonic snakes that are not as charged as the image of the cross, but still carry symbolic weight. The Bible refers to the snake as “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan” and describes the heavenly affinity of birds as the “Father feedeth them” (King James Bible, Revelations 12:9) (King James Bible, Matthew 6:26). Snakes and birds are symbolic of the Biblical conflict of heaven versus hell. Akutagawa draws on this powerful imagery of good and evil as he describes a moment where Yoshihide stares in anguish as the snake defeats the owl. Akutagawa describes the moment when the “black snake was tightly coiled around the owl from neck to tail and over one wing,” and continues to say that “the owl must have made the mistake of trying to grab it in its talons, only to give rise to the struggle.” (59). There is a bitter conflict between good and evil in “Hell Screen” where evil prevailed highlighting Akutagawa’s role as an author.
In “Ideology and Narrative in Japanese Literature”, Murakami’s argument supports the Christian nature of the symbols of the owl and the snake in “Hell Screen”. Murakami’s claim support that the Christian symbol of the bird and the snake were intentional and describe an internal conflict within Yoshihide. Within the constraints of Murakami’s claim, the owl represents Yoshihide’s view of himself. He is egotistical and thinks his values are good in nature when in fact his values are represented by the snake. He tortures his apprentices and watches his daughter die. As the snake injures the owl, Akutagawa manipulates Christian symbolism to describe how Yoshihide realizes the nature of his values in disbelief. The owl is representative of the good and the divine while the snake is synonymous with the satanic. On top of this, Christian symbolism is still overshadowed by the plot. The story is about a Buddhist Japanese man with perverse values that is painting an image of Buddhist hell in feudal Japan even when Akutagawa ingrains the powerful image of the bird versus the snake.
Christian values are being transferred to an audience that does not believe in Christianity. The homage to Buddhism and Japanese history in “Hell Screen” exposes the Japanese to Christianity. Akutagawa’s subtle Christian allusions do not bring the forceful wave of westernization that was feared by the Japanese in 1638. Akutagawa’s allusions to Christian images and symbolism strengthen his writing allowing him to make more profound commentary on the characters of His Lordship and Yoshihide and how they are influenced by Buddhist and Christian values. But, his effective integration of Christian references in “Hell Screen” is not just making Christianity more palatable. Ken Inoue writes “The Influence of American Literature in Taishō and Prewar Shōwa” and he claims that integrating American literature into Japanese texts led to the rise in popularity of the same texts being referenced by Japanese authors during the Taisho Period. Inoue describes how Japanese authors referenced American literature and then authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman had their works translated (Inoue). Their work was translated and made available to the Japanese people. Japanese authors changed Japanese society by exposing their audiences to western literature within their own literature. They integrated references from American Literature into their own work which then led to the printing of these American novels in Japanese. Akutagawa acts in a similar fashion as he includes references to Christianity in “Hell Screen”. Like other Japanese authors, Akutagawa shared the western ideas that inspired him with his audience promoting open-mindedness and the appreciation of foreign cultures.
Akutagawa, Ryunosuke. Hell Screen. Iwanami Shoten Publishing, 1918.
Buruma, Ian. Inventing Japan. Modern Library, 2004.
“Christianity in Japan.” Wikipedia, 9 Oct. 2017. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Christianity_in_Japan&oldid=804576151.
“Four Heavenly Kings.” Wikipedia, 25 Sept. 2017. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Four_Heavenly_Kings&oldid=802331503.
Inoue, Ken. The Influence of American Literature in Taishō and Prewar Shōwa Japan. Apr. 2017. literature.oxfordre.com, doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.208.
King James Bible. http://biblehub.com/kjv/. Accessed 21 Nov. 2017.
Murakami, Fuminobu. Ideology and Narrative in Modern Japanese Literature. Uitgeverij Van Gorcum, 1996.
Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Rashomon and Other Stories. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/RashomonAndOtherStories. Accessed 2 Nov. 2017.
“Serpents in the Bible.” Wikipedia, 5 Nov. 2017. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Serpents_in_the_Bible&oldid=808856726.