Hell Screen – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

September 13, 2016 § 6 Comments

First published in the Japanese in 1918
Translated into the English by Jay Rubin in 2006


I’ve been experiencing a reading drought. I’ve had a lot of “false starts”, never really getting past the first 20 pages, and it was starting to annoy me. I needed a pick-me-up, a literary sorbet of sorts to help me get past the books I couldn’t plough through, and get started on a good streak again.

My partner picked Hell Screen for me. Her reason: it’s a small book. And it is. It only goes up to 52 pages, and ends with a second short story, The Spider Thread, that’s less than 10 pages long. And it was perfect.

Hell Screen is told from an unnamed narrator’s point of view. Right from the get-go, it was obvious to me that his opinions and views were skewed and biased. I’ve read books with unreliable narrators before, like The Great Gatsby, but this was different for me. His story was so full of “personal” opinions that it felt like he was not only trying to convince me, the reader, that he was right about his master, he was also trying to convince himself  too!

And that was slightly disturbing, if not oddly comforting at the same time. It’s like when you’re talking to a friend, and they’re sharing some juicy piece of gossip with you. You get the feeling that you’re not getting the whole story, but you cannot help but get drawn in, believing his every word, and forming your own skewed opinions about people you’ve never met and only just heard about.

Ah, the beauty of the human nature.

In Hell Screen, the narrator tells us the story about his master who’s revered and well-loved by everyone; a young girl who works in the master’s home and is also well-loved by everyone; and her father who’s not only the most hated man in the land, but also a very talented painter who’s commissioned by the master to paint a hell screen.

The story borders on eerie, as the narrator tells us the extents the father goes to, to produce top-quality paintings. Even though all his stories were based on hearsay and gossip, and he even makes it obvious that he’s merely repeating what he had been told, it’s too easy to take his word for it.

It’s not easy to talk about this book, except that it’s a very good one. The short story, The Spider Thread, also drove the point straight home. It read like one of Aesop’s Fables, a story with a moral. A story about redemption and second chances. For a story only 6 pages long, I think it’s amazing that I actually felt both saddened and empowered by it. Really amazing stuff.


This Wikipedia page says that Akutagawa is regarded as the “Father of the Japanese Short Story”. I need to get Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories.

§ 6 Responses to Hell Screen – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

  • sakura says:

    I just finished reading Kappa by Akutagawa – it was my first story by him. It is an interesting and biting satire of Japanese society and says a lot about the idea of artistic life. Although I haven’t read much of his work, he is the quintessential image of the suffering literary type in late 19th/early 20th century Japan that you see him pop up often in popular culture. Now I want to read more of his work, especially A Spider’s Thread and Rashomon, and Hell Screen sounds intriguing too.

    • Michelle says:

      It’s interesting, because Kappa was also my first encounter with Akutagawa, which I read quite some years ago. If you found Kappa good, I have a feeling you’ll like Hell Screen too.

  • mee says:

    What a coincidence that the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads has picked this book as the September book. However I tried to find it in the usual shops and the grey Penguin seems to be out of print, so it’s become too expensive (not sure what your edition is). I’ve been meaning to read Akutagawa, and I have Kappa at home (saw Sakura’s comment :). I also intend to get to Rashomon short story collection at some point.

    • Michelle says:

      I’ve been very bad at keeping up with book groups and the like… But since you mentioned the Goodreads group, maybe I should pop over and have a look. I have the grey Penguin edition, which I bought about three years ago. And as I’ve just replied to Sakura’s comment, Kappa’s a good story too. =D

  • Mae says:

    This author has intrigued me for a while. I’ve seen his work here and there in anthologies, and of course I’ve seen the film of Rashomon as well as reading the story. The Kappa legends are also fascinating — funny little creatures. Kappa maki (cucumber sushi) seem to be associated with them because Kappa also means cucumber.

    Amazon.com lists a penguin collection of all of his stories for $11.42, slightly more for the kindle edition.

    Interesting review.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

    • Michelle says:

      Hi Mae. Thanks for dropping by. I still think I haven’t read enough of his work to comment too much, but of what little I’ve read, he’s definitely got some interesting stuff.

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