Akutagawa Ryunosuke is perhaps best known in the West as the author of the short story "Rashomon", which leant its title to the Kurosawa Akira film of the same name. But in Japan he is known as a master of the short story, a man who plumbed the darker side of the human soul with an unmatched skill.
However, Akutagawa stories are rarely adapted for film. Unlike his fellow Japanese short-story writer Edogawa Rampo, whose adaptations number in the hundreds, Akutagawa's stories do not lend themselves to cinema easily. Aside from Kurosawa's film, which is based on Akutagawa story "In the Grove", and not on the actual "Rashomon" tale, there are only about ten or twelve Akutagawa-based movies, and only two of which have been released in the US.
This is the second one. "Portrait of Hell", based on Akutagawa's short story "Jigokuhen" or "Hellscreen", and tells the story of Yoshihide, a painter who will only paint what he has personally seen, and Lord Hosokawa, who loves Yoshihide's work but wants him to paint more beautiful work such as fantasy visions of Buddha's paradise. Yoshihide instead tries to teach Hosokawa a lesson, by showing him visions of human bodies torn apart by war and the other suffering that his enjoyable and easy life is built on. Yoshihide (played by the master actor Nakadai Tatsuya, Ran, Harakiri) is a proud and stern man, who values his commitment to his artwork even above the life of his daughter. Yoshihide's daughter, Yoshiko (Naito Yoko, The Sword of Doom) has caught the attention of Lord Hosokawa (Nakamura Kinnosuke, Incident at Blood Pass), who wants to "honor" her by making Yoshiko his concubine, regardless of her engagement to another. A slow contest of wills emerge, as Yoshihide dives further and further into humanities murkiness in order to paint an actual picture of Hell, and finally open Hosokawa's eyes.
The story deviates from Akutagawa's original, but maintains the main tone and themes: The value of art versus the egotism of human beings, social obligations versus personal desires, the imaginary world of the Lord's court versus the true human suffering that goes on outside the walls, and who pays the price for such luxury. It is not a story that lends itself to much action, and most of the drama is psychological. It takes an actor of Nakadai's stature to bring life to the complicated character of Yoshihide, whose motives are not always apparent and whose actions can be shocking.
Director Toyoda Shiro is not a familiar name in the West, and "Portrait of Hell" is his only film with an official US release. He also directed Nakadai in one of the many adaptations of Yotsuya kaidan, and has a flair for psychological horror. His work is highly colorful and visual, and he makes brilliant use of seasonal colors to highlight the psychological elements at work. The theatricality of this film brings to mind another classic of Japanese horror, Kobayashi's Kwaidan.
I don't know that "Portrait of Hell" is going to please everyone. It is certainly not a typical samurai flick, nor a typical horror film. Most of all, it reminds me of a really well done feature length version of the old Rod Serling TV series Night Gallery. I am a fan of that show as well, so I really enjoyed "Portrait of Hell".