The Many Spheres of Hell As Seen In Japanese Art

Depicts of hell in Japanese art are intricate fantasy that were used to inspire moral behavior and the only figures smiling are the demons.

Detail of the “Hell for Priests Scroll’ (12-13th c.), showing a demon jailor leading sinners to the river of excrement (Collection of the Nara National Museum, all images courtesy PIE International)

There’s a special place in hell for a sinner of every kind, as Buddhist ideas of the netherworld suggest. Cheat someone of their fortunes, and you’ll be destined to weigh hot iron forever in a lair overseen by a three-eyed hag. Use evil language, and you’ll land in a realm where wardens cut out your tongue with hot iron shears. Kill a bird, and find yourself surrounded by massive flames, as avians with hot beaks gnaw at your roasting flesh.

‘Hell in Japanese Art,” published by PIE International

These are just a sampling of the many gruesome and highly specific fates that await in the Narakas, or the Buddhist realms of purgatory. Like Dante’s Inferno, ancient scriptures describing these various hells have captivated artists across centuries. A book recently published by PIE International focuses on such artworks made in Japan, compiling historical examples of prominent paintings and scrolls that are devoted entirely to man’s understanding of a brutal underworld.

Hell in Japanese Art is a massive book, totaling 592 pages of illustrations and related texts by researchers Kajitani Ryoji and Nishida Naoki, printed in both English and Japanese. The volume features artworks created between the 12th and 19th centuries, and focuses largely on those designated as Japanese National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties, meaning that they possess exceptional historical or artistic value.

Many of the original scroll paintings are elaborate, showing multiple strata of hell, so the publication features cropped and enlarged sections of each artwork on individual pages to allow you to closely examine the savage scenes — which is mostly why the book is so thick. Browsing the works, what I found most impressive is the variety of punishments depicted, each of which is always rendered explicitly: in one vision, skeletal sinners lie on hot iron planks, where demon jailers cut them open with saws and axes; in another, poor souls eat feces as worms gnaw on their flesh. Red is typically the most prominent color in these tableaux, marking flames, blood, and the fiery skin of demons — the only ones ever smiling.

Scene of “The Hell of Endless Rebirth,” detail from a 13th-century hanging scroll from the Kamakura period, from Shojuraigoji templ in Shiga prefecture

Traditionally these scrolls were often displayed in temples and shrines, as not-so-subtle reminders of the consequences of immoral behavior. As Naoki writes in the book’s preface, hell paintings “have the potential to awake one’s conscience anew through the depiction of cruel punishments.”

What largely formed the basis of how hell is understood in Japan, even today, as Naoki explains, is the medieval Buddhist text, The Essentials of Rebirth in the Pure Land, written by the Japanese monk known as Genshin. These volumes described eight great hells that include subsidiary ones; these domains have wonderfully grotesque names like the “Hell of the Blood and Pus” and  the “Hell of the Excrement.” Most intense is the “Unremitting Hell,” where those who commit one of the five cardinal sins are subject to tortures such as having hot iron balls shoved down their throats.

Hell in Japanese Art includes the 19th-century woodblock-printed edition of Genshin’s text, accompanied by a modern text translated into English. As its title suggests — and in keeping with Buddhist theology — purgatory was not necessarily a permanent state, and Genshin advises on how people can be reborn. The prints that illustrate his writing show scenes of salvation, too. But it is ultimately those on the terrors of hell that are most riveting, as records of those trying to understand what darkness possibly awaits us when our time is up.

Detail of Painting 26 from “Five Hundred Arhats” (19th c.), a set of 100 hanging scrolls from Zojoji temple in Tokyo
Detail of “Extermination of Evil” (12th c.), or five hanging scrolls, showing the four-armed Tenkeishi (Collection of the Nara National Museum)
Spread from “Hell in Japanese Art,” published by PIE International, showing details of the handscroll, “Hell and Pure Land Painting” (18th century) (Collection of the Kumamoto Prefectual Museum of Art)
Detail from “Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine,” a late-13th-century set of nine scrolls from Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto
Detail of a 13th-century hanging scroll depicting King Enma’s court, part of a set of 15 hanging scrolls from the Kamakura period, from Shojuraigoji templ in Shiga prefecture
“Illustrated Legends of the Jizo Statue of Yatadera Temple,” a 16th c. handscroll depicting the statue rescuing the dead from various hells (Collection of the Nara National Museum)
Kawanabe Kyosi, “Yamato Anthology of the Eight Aspects of Shaka” (1885) (Collection of the Kawanabe kyosai Memorial Museum)
Spread from “Hell in Japanese Art,” published by PIE International
Spread from “Hell in Japanese Art,” published by PIE International
Spread from “Hell in Japanese Art,” published by PIE International

Hell in Japanese Art is available through PIE International.

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