Hell Screen is narrated by an uninvolved servant who witnesses or hears of the events. The story of Hell Screen centers around the artist Yoshihide. Yoshihide is considered “the greatest painter in the land”, and is often commissioned to create works for the Lord of Horikawa, who also employs Yoshihide’s daughter in his mansion. When Yoshihide is instructed to create a screen depicting the Buddhist hell, he proceeds to inflict tortures upon his apprentices, for he cannot effectively paint anything he has not seen. The story climaxes when Yoshihide asks the lord to burn a beautiful lady in a carriage so he can finish the screen. The lord concedes, but, in a macabre twist, Yoshihide must watch as his daughter Yuzuki and her monkey are the ones who burn. The story ends with the magnificently horrible screen completed, and Yoshihide’s suicide.
- Part 1: The short story begins with the narrator who narrates the whole story. The narrator is a servant of the lord which is disclosed later in part one. Part one of the story is about the lord’s birth and great achievements as an Emperor. The lord is described as having “…innate qualities that distinguished him from ordinary human beings.” He also is described as having a self quality. Even though he is the lord of Japan he keeps in mind off of his subjects “even the lowliest of his subjects”. The narrator goes on to describe the lord’s encounters with the super natural. The Emperor encounters a “procession of goblins” that he escapes unharmed from. He also comes in contact with the ghost of the “Minister of the Left” whom he dismisses from haunting the area. After listing the qualities of the lord the narrator explains how some people believed “…their lord… a reincarnation of the Buddha." To show the belief that he was a reincarnation of Buddha the narrator details another story about the lord. The lords ox hits an old man and the old man become happy that he had the good fortune to be hit by the ox since it belonged to the lord. Another story is told about a building of a bridge. When the bridge seems to be going against the “will of the local deity” the lord decides to give a human sacrifice. He gives the human sacrifice of his “favorite boy attendant”.
The last story about the great achievements of the lord is of how the lord brought surgery to Japan. The lord needed a growth removed from his leg so he summoned a Chinese monk. The Chinese monk brought with him the knowledge of surgery. The narrator concludes part one by foreshadowing the rest of the story. He says the story is “…more terrible than anything I had ever witnessed—or have ever.” The very end the narrator introduces Yoshide who is the painter of Hell Screen.
- Hell Gate Part 2: The second section of the story introduces Yoshide and his daughter who remains nameless. Yoshide is described as a great painter, but also as a very unpleasant man to look at or be around. He is described as having “unnaturally red for such an old man” and “used to say that he look and moved like a monkey." This leads to a creation of his nickname “monkey hide”. The daughter is described next. Her description is the in the opposite way her father is described. She is “sweet, lovely… utterly unlike her father.” She lost her mother when she was young, and soon after became a lady in waiting for the lord’s daughter. The narrator goes on to tell a story about the daughter’s good nature. The Lord’s son had received a tame monkey. He named the monkey Yoshihide to make of fun of the painter. Everyone in the household enjoys the name and teases the monkey. Yoshihide’s daughter meets the monkey as it is being chased by the lord’s son. The lord’s son is chasing the monkey because the monkey stole a tangerine. Yoshihide’s daughter feels bad for the monkey since it cannot climb a post to safety because it is injured. The monkey takes to hiding in her skirt. The daughter asks the young lord to spare the monkey. On the second plea to the young lord she cites the monkey’s name as a reason why he should not beat it. She says that she does not want to “…watch ‘my father’ being punished.” This makes the young lord relent.
- Part 3: Section three starts with the description of the relationship between the monkey and Yoshihide’s daughter. The monkey and the daughter were always together. In the household people became fonder of the monkey. The monkey was teased less and the lord’s son “once flew into a rage when one of the samurai kicked the animal.” The lordship heard of his son’s outburst in favor of the monkey and requested audience with Yoshihide’s daughter. The Lordship compliments the daughter on being loyal to her father. He gifts her with an under robe and is pleased that the monkey bows when the daughter bows. The narrator at this point makes a comment on the relationship between the lord and Yoshihide’s daughter. The narrator comments that the gift given to the daughter was out of locality to her father and not that she was attractive. He reasons this by saying that the lord would not show his affection to someone so below his rank even if she is beautiful. As the monkey name Yoshihide was enjoyed more and more the painter was hated more. His reputation was seen as awful. The narrator comments that the only people who would give him a good remark were the people who only saw his art work and did not know the artist personally.
- Part 4: This section is about Yoshihide’s Character. The narrator begins by saying Yoshihide was “harsh… (When dealing) with people…no shame…Lazy and greedy.” The worst of his traits was his “insolence and arrogance.” He also disliked religion and the rituals. The text breaks from is character to give an example on how far he would discredit beliefs. He sees a woman under possession who gives him a “horrifying message”. This does not scare Yoshihide and he actually paints the woman. The narrator goes on to detail how Yoshihide is “sacrilege in his work”. When he is painting a Goddess his model is a prostitute. Then when he painted “fudo” he uses a criminal as a model. When people would warn him he might be angering the gods Yoshihide remarks “are you trying to tell me that my own Buddha and god are going to punish me?” Over this remark, he loses many apprentices who fear for their afterlife if they stay under his apprenticeship. After describing how he made the painting, the narrator remarks on how life-like Yoshihide’s paintings are. This is proven by painters who comment on how they could “hear” and “smell” his paintings. The section is left with a remark that Yoshihide has one thing that Yoshihide “displayed human tenderness to”.
- Part 5: The Narrator picks up form where he left off in section four. The person Yoshihide care about was his only daughter. The text comments that he more to his beloved daughter than he did to a temple. The Narrator also explains how Yoshihide’s daughter became to be in serve to the Lord. Yoshihide had wanted to keep his daughter to himself. Even when suitors would he would scare them off. The Narrator comments on how people began to say the Lord liked the girl because he had her in his service even though Yoshihide was opposed to it. The Narrator denies these rumors. Yoshihide went on to create a painting the lord enjoyed. The Lord said “You can have anything you want as your reward.” Yoshihide asked for his daughter back and the Lord refused. Yoshihide asking for his daughter back is caste in a bad light. It is seen that the Lord is doing Yoshihide’s daughter a great service to have her in his household and for a father to ask for he to leave was rude. Yoshihide kept presenting his Lord for his daughter and the daughter became more and more upset. The Narrator again mentions that there were rumors that his Lord’s refusal was from his fondness of the girl. Yoshihide became more and more in disfavor with the Lord, until one day he was asked to paint the Hell screen.
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“Jamess great gift, of course, was his ability to tell a plot in shimmering detail with such delicacy of treatment and such fine aloofnessthat is, reluctance to engage in any direct grappling with what, in the play or story, had actually taken placeMthat his listeners often did not, in the end, know what had, to put it in another way, gone on.”
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