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…………………..