Two exquisite tales of medieval Japan that tell of artistic integrity, sin, and the tortuous vengeance of the Buddhist hells. The prose reads effortlessly, and the stories are tempered in perfect balance like dew resting on morning grass. The short collection is all the evidence needed to show that Akutagawa was, without a doubt, the first master of the Japanese short story.
An interesting read, Akutagawa's story of the painter charged with capturing hell may seem unusual at first, but the excellent vivid description throughout turn a tedious morality tale into something dark and brooding.
The translation is good, enabling the story to flow well. I've never read Akutagawa before, and I found his narration style very unusual with various jumps ahead and back again in the story's timescale.
Sadly I didn't find any of the characters endearing as such, a shame, as a story to me becomes considerably more difficult to enjoy when not one character can be epathised with. Hell Screen is still an interesting read, though I am not sure whether I would recommend it. If you've read a few of the new Penguin series (mini modern classics) and enjoy this type of fiction, then for the price, it is worth an attempt.
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If someone had said you really should read this pair of mildly horrific cautionary tales set in medieval Japan I would have probably politely declined as it seems well outside my usual range of interests. However I would then have missed two great little tales - so it’s very a good thing I acquired this little book as part of the Penguin Mini Modern Classics 50-volume box set and therefore felt that really I ought to read it now that I had acquired it.
One should be pulled or pushed into reading outside one’s comfort zone from time to time. While this pleasant encounter with an interesting text outside my normal subject range has not inspired me sufficiently to seek out more Akutagawa, it has certainly spurred me to read the other 49 books in this set.
'Hell Screen' is a superb piece of storytelling. A renowned artist is given the task of depicting hell by the local ruler and throws himself into the work rather too literally. The story is narrated conversationally by an unnamed court bystander and the author winds up the tension as the story progresses. I disagree with the view that there are no characters to empathise with; one can easily identify with the situation of the artist's daughter.
'Hell Screen' comes in a pocket-sized 50-page book with the very short cautionary tale, 'The Spider Thread' tacked on after it. I bought it as part of the Penguin Mini Modern Classics 50-volume boxed set which, at about 1.50 per volume halved the cost of the cover price of individual volumes.