Mention historical Japanese painting to a westerner and certain images involuntarily leap to mind- Hokusai’s great wave, an idyllic nature scene, an elegant Geisha, a sparrow perched on an inky branch… even Tales of the Genji or an explicit bit of Shunga perhaps. I imagine one thing which does not readily spring to mind is H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks, with its demons and leaping flames and pestilence and writhing souls. After all, that’s our thing! Isn’t it?
Well, yes and no.
There are “hell scrolls” to take into account.⊕ These are narrative scrolls which depict a Buddhist conception of hell, specifically that of Chinese Buddhism of the 1st century AD, which was itself heavily influenced by the “Hindu concept of a many-leveled hell of punishment between lifetimes.”
These scrolls are darker and more gruesome than what we generally equate with Japanese painting. They depict the suffering of sinners who have fallen into one of the six realms⊕ to which a person is consigned after death as a result of his or her deeds during this life.
Quote: It depicts murderers, thieves, adulterers, and so forth, who have fallen into the Hell of Cloud, Fire, and Mist. The naked men and women are in agony as they burn in an enormous fire. The writhing flames are vividly and effectively rendered with concise lines and black and vermilion tones. The painting probably caused its viewers to shudder with fear and foreboding, encouraging them to embrace the desire to be born into the Pure Land.
They are cautionary, in the same way Western images of hell are, and though the depiction of flayed bodies, blood, tortures, leaping flames and demons (not to mentioned the tiered structure which our Dante helped popularize) would seem a perfect parallel, this Buddhist hell is actually quite different.⊕ Foremost among these differences is the fact that Buddhist hell is temporary. More of a purgatory really, where one works off their karmic debt, before easin’ on down the road. For those with hot pokers shoved up their asses, this is an essential difference you can be sure. In as much I think it’s safe to say “the one true hell” still belongs to the west.
In any case here are a few details from two hell scrolls in the collection of the National Museum of Japan which I thought you might enjoy a gander at, surprisingly un-serene as they are.
For more info on Buddist hell see:
Hell of the Chinese Afterlife
Mechanisms of Violent Retribution in Chinese Hell Narratives (pdf)
Japanese Buddhist Statuary A to Z Photo Dictionary
Hope you enjoyed.