Art of Cruelty

Hell Screen, Cogwheels, A Fool's Life

by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Takashi Kojima and Cid Corman and Will Petersen, with a foreword by Jorge Luis Borges, an introduction by Kazuya Sakai
Eridanos, 145 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Two short stories, by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro and Akutagawa Ryunosuke, appeared within ten years of each other; Tanizaki’s “The Tattooer” in 1910, and Akutagawa’s “Hell Screen” in 1918. The stories are remarkably alike. “The Tattooer” concerns Seikichi, a tattoo artist in the decadent phase of the Edo period, around the 1840s let us say, whose ambition is, as the author puts it, to engrave his soul into the skin of a beautiful woman. It takes time to find the perfect human canvas for his masterpiece, but when he catches a glimpse of the exquisite feet of a young teahouse girl, he knows his goal is near. “This,” he feels instinctively, “is a foot to be fed by men’s blood, a foot to trample on their bodies.”

The girl with the enticing feet visits his studio and Seikichi shows her a picture of a beautiful princess watching with rapture the execution of a prisoner. The girl confesses that she feels the same inclination as the cruel princess. The tattooer’s eyes gleam with pleasure. Seikichi drugs her and works on her fair skin day and night. When she wakes from her stupor, the legs of the tattooed spider on her back appear to move from her shoulders down to her waist. The tattooer is exhausted, his soul caught forever in the female spider’s web. The girl is transformed into a sexual demon, every man her slave. Both are ecstatic with the beauty of it all.

Akutagawa’s story also concerns an artist, a painter at the court of the most powerful lord in Kyoto. The artist, Yoshihide, has a taste for cruel and violent scenes, which he insists on seeing to the last horrible detail before transforming them into art. His handsome young assistant is made to strip and is tortured by snakes and birds, or tied up in excrutiating postures.

Yoshihide, a melancholy and macabre man, has only one tender spot, his daughter, whom he loves deeply. Yoshihide’s lord takes a fancy to this beautiful girl but his advances are refused.

Yoshihide is commissioned to paint a screen depicting a scene from hell. He asks his lord for a favor. In order to convey the full horror of the main image, a burning ox carriage containing an elegant court lady in the throes of a ghastly death, he needs to see the scene with his own eyes. It can be arranged, the lord promises, in pleasant anticipation. A carriage is provided with a gorgeously dressed woman inside. And just as the carriage is put to the torch, Yoshihide notices with a mixture of horror and fascination that he is watching his own daughter being burned to death. His screen is of course a masterpiece, much admired by all. On the day after its completion, Yoshihide hangs himself.

Both stories are romantic, beautifully, though, in the young Tanizaki’s case, somewhat floridly, written, and quite perverse. They are amoral—not immoral—in the sense of Oscar Wilde’s dictum about there being no moral or immoral art,…

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