Study Guide: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke “Hell Screen” (1918)
Original: “Jigokuhen” 「地獄変」(1918).
Translation: “Hell Screen” (tr. Jay Rubin; in his Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (Penguin Classics, 2006).
1. Identity the point of view. Who is the narrator? What is his relation to the setting, the Lord of Horikawa, and the other characters and events? How reliable is he? Describe his narrative style and method, noting difference between plot and story. What are his sources? Does he employ flashbacks or foreshadowing? Why does he defend the Lordship so adamantly?
2. Create appropriate titles for each of the twenty sections of the work (e.g., Section 13: “Yuzuki’s Near Rape”; Section 14: “Yoshihide’s Final Request”; etc.)
3. Describe the setting and the era. Can you find any anachronisms in the story?
4. Describe the Lord of Horikawa (his position, reputation, personality, interest in Yuzuki, etc.). How does he discover Yuzuki? Does he have ulterior motives in making her his “junior lady-in-waiting”? Why does he commission the hell painting and then decide to send Yuzuki to her death? Also discuss similarities between him and Emperor Xuanzong of Tang.
5. Describe Yoshihide (his appearance, reputation, worldview, personality, “one tender side,” aesthetic view, painting method, etc. What modern view of art does he represent? Give specific examples.
6. Describe Yuzuki (her appearance, personality, various virtues, her feelings toward the Lordship, etc.). Discuss similarities between her and the famed Yang Guifei of Tang Dynasty.
7. Discuss similarities between Akutagawa’s story and the Legend of Yang Guifei (see my previous study guide for reference). Be specific.
8. Describe the hell painting and the scene of the burning carriage. How is this painting different from previous examples of the genre? How and why does Yoshihide’s reaction to the burning carriage change in the course of the scene? Why does Yoshihide kill himself after it is completed? Explain.
9. Some critics have read this work in the I-novel mode, i.e., as a thinly disguised autobiography or self-portrait in which Yoshihide corresponds to Akutagawa himself. Based on what you know of Akutagawa’s life and his penchant for “aestheticism” (tanbi-ha) and “diabolism” (akumashugi), do you think such a reading is valid? Explain.