How actions define character: A reflection about Hell Screen, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Hell Screen, based on research, is a short story written by Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. It was originally published in 1918 as a serialization in two newspapers. It was later published in a collection of Akutagawa short stories, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke zenshū. (

Hell Screen revolves around a character named Yoshihide, who was said to be the greatest painter in the land. The artist was described as someone who can be really obsessive and frenzied towards what he does – his art. He would overlook and disregard everything in trying to make his pictures as perfect as possible. He would do anything just to show his excellence. For example, in making the hell screen he would even make his apprentices torture themselves for he could not effectively paint anything he has not seen. According to him, he could not paint anything for which a model is lacking;  there is a lack of conviction. Some of these models include one of his apprentices being pounced in the face by the claws of an owl (part 10), another apprentice bound with a chain, naked (part 8) and the commotion between the owl and the snake (part 11) . These events give some ideas of Yoshihide’s madness.   However, Yoshihide’s not all harsh and evil. He also has a human weakness, a soft spot for someone dear to him. He truly cares about his daughter, Yuzuki, the one important person in his life. He’s not thrilled that she is a lady-in-waiting at the court of the lord of Horikawa, so when the lord offers him anything he wishes, he asks that his daughter be released from his service, but the lord of Horikawa refused. The lord eventually ordered Yoshihide to paint a screen delineating hell. Yoshihide had a little trouble in envisioning a good deal of the horror, so he began inflicting agonies to his apprentices. Later on, he wished to have someone burned in a carriage for his centerpiece, so he can finish the screen. He discussed it with the lord. He got what he wished for, but of course, it came with an appropriately gruesome twist. He painted the final detail on the screen with the horrendous burning of his loving daughter and her monkey right there before his eyes. The story ended with the marvelously hideous screen completed, and Yoshihide’s suicide.

Yoshihide was introduced in the story describing how great he is as a painter. In part 2 of the text, it is said that he is a famous painter surpassed by no contemporary. However physically, he was considered as someone who does not have so much of a deal for his looks, for he is a man of a short stature and a bag of skin and bones, as also mentioned in part 2. He is also described as having unnaturally red lips for such an old man. This was somewhat emphasized in the text. This youthful red lips of his was said to bring an evil vibe for its as if he was some sort of an animal. This is also a reason why others who are more unkind compare him with monkeys for they say he looks and moves like a monkey. This is how his nickname “monkey hide” came about. He was described to be a man who is very unpleasant to look at or mingle with.

As to Yoshihide’s character, he was described as someone who is very harsh and cruel in dealing with people. In part 4, he is illustrated as someone who is shameless, lazy, bad-tempered, contemptuous and greedy. He disliked religion and the rituals. He despised everything, even the customs and amenities of society. As we go along the body of the text, it can be concluded that some of his very evident traits were his insolence and arrogance, as the text was broken into events that would really define who he is and how far he would discredit beliefs. The story also mentioned details on how Yoshihide is “sacrilegeous in his work”. As I mentioned in my 2nd paragraph, he could really be mad as depicted by his art. He is not accepted. He is disliked. He is hated. As told in part 3 of the text, he is very repellant because of his appearance and his habits. However, no one was to blame for his unpopularity but himself.

Yoshihide is described very negatively in the story. Yet, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa chose to create a soft spot of Yoshihide – his love of his only daughter, Yuzuki, a charming 15-year-old girl, quite unlike her father, was at that time a maid in Horikawa, as said in part 2 of the text. In part 5 of the text, it is told that He would even provide kimono and pins for his daughter with a reckless disregard of cost. This is such an incredible thing for a man who never gave donation to a temple. In the last part of the story where his daughter was burned for the completion of his work – the Hell Screen, it is said that on the night of the day following the completion of the painting of the screen, he hanged himself by putting a rope over the beam of his room for he who survived the untimely and heart breaking death of his only beloved daughter could no longer find it in his heart to live.

One’s character and personality cannot be defined by merely looking at his general behavior. It is usually the opposite of one’s truest self that only appears to be one’s façade to protect one’s soft spot and vulnerability.

Going back to the story. In the case of Yoshihide, throughout the story, he appeared to be heartless and cruel. The text showed different events of his life, which resulted to seeing him as someone vicious. However, his innermost self became apparent, when he was caught in a situation where he was left with no choice. He couldn’t do anything but suffer the consequence of his radical and unconventional way of extracting brilliant and matchless creative ideas, which caused him the life of his dearly beloved daughter.

There had been a twist in his character as his ideals and rights were violated with the lord’s way of giving him what he wanted at his own expense; the burning of his dearly beloved daughter in a carriage which is what he requested to serve as an inspiration for his art.

In conclusion, we could never judge one’s character with the way he generally deals with people but with his inner most self.


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