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“Hell Screen” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

“Hell Screen” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa is a genius writer. He committed suicide feeling “uncertain insecurity” at the age of 35. Akutagawa Prize, which is named after him, is still one of the most coveted literary prizes in Japan.

His literary life can be divided into 3 phases, the first of which is the one where he depicted human nature. One of the most representative works of this time is “The Nose”, which was extolled by Soseki Natsume, and is still a must read in Japanese high schools. The second period is so called “art for art’s sake” period, whose notable work should be “Hell Screen”. The last stage can be classified as the autobiographical one. “Spinning Gears” of this time period is quoted even in Haruki Murakami’s latest work “First Person Singular”.

“Hell Screen” unfolds itself centering the life of an artist Yoshihide. The original materials were taken from a collection of Japanese tales in the 13th century. What makes Akutagawa’s writing distinctive is this style of rewriting and reviving a story with an acute sense of psychology.

After reading this story, I realized again that Akugawa was such a story teller. “Hell Screen” is literally a page turner, well structured, and cinematographic. Another fascinating element of this story is the unreliable narrator. Who tells the story and from what perspectives is a recurring theme in Akutagawa’s works. Lastly, this story makes me think of to what extent artists can and will sacrifice for their art. The last scene depicts it in a shockingly beautiful way.

This story also reminds me of “The Moon and Sixpence” by Maugham. Both Yoshihide and Strickland are violently amoral. Probably morality is oftentimes incompatible with artists.

Such an appropriate writer to finish this term. We had so much intense and interesting discussion about so many aspects of this story. Thank you all!

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