People being boiled in pots and lakes of blood—these are sights that would make you shudder. They are called Buddhist “hellscapes,” and are now on display at the “Wonderland of Buddhist Hell Scenes,” an exhibit that will run throughout the summer at Tokyo’s Mitsui Memorial Museum in Nihonbashi.
Amid blaze, the tongues of the dead are dragged out and pierced through with nails. Outside the gates, burning chariots carry the bodies of the dead. These lifelike depictions are a feature of the Edo period’s “Hell of Agonies,” one of the “Portraits of the Six Realms.”
In Buddhism, the six realms of samsara are six different worlds through which the lost soul transmigrates: hell, the realm of hungry ghosts, the realm of beasts, the realm of titans, the realm of humans, and the realm of gods.
Hell is the most painful and violent world, and after paintings of the six realms emerged in the Heian period, many hell scenes became popular.
After death, it is said that human beings are judged by the Ten Kings of Hades, and that the weight of their sins in life will determine their next reincarnation.
The most famous of the Kings of Hades is undoubtedly Enma Daioh, one of the Ten Kings. The Kamakura period portrait “Mandala of Enma-Ten” (Important Cultural Property) portrays the fierce king with a portrait dignifying his position. A wooden sculpture of a seated King Enma (also from the Kamakura period) seems to menace the viewer with the powerful rage visible in his large eyes.
Hells can also be found in the sacred mountains of Japan’s traditional mountain worship. In Toyama prefecture’s Tachiyama range, it was widely believed from ancient times that the souls of the dead convened in the depths of the mountains. The Edo period “Tachiyama Mandala” shows the riverbed of the Sanzu (the Japanese River Styx) and lakes of blood alongside its portrait of the Pure Land. It is said that many Tachiyama Mandalas like this were produced during the Edo and early modern periods.
Also on display at this exhibit are medieval portraits of the six realms of samsara from China’s Southern Song dynasty. There is also the Buddhist text Ōjōyōshū from Japan’s Heian period, which graphically describes the realms of hell.
However, not all of the objects on display are meant to terrify. In the 17th century section, we see portraits of hell that are meant to overcome fear through delight. The Edo period “Jizo and the Ten Kings” shows the dead climbing a mountain of needles and being boiled in a pot, but the eyes and movements of the Ten Kings are exaggerated and quite humorous.
“It’s cute, like a manga. It fits the modern so-bad-it’s-good aesthetic,” said museum director Minoru Shimizu.
It’s believed that easy-to-understand pictures of hell were produced in order to gather believers to the temple. The Edo period light novel Santokyoden attracted popularity as a “penny dreadful” publication replete with humorous illustrations of hells.
The assembly hall features the famed manga artist Mizuki Shigeru’s children’s book Young Mizuki and Nonnonba’s Trip to Hell. Based on the Ōjōyōshū description, its cruel scenes of bodies being ripped apart are provocative. As terrible as it is, the reader is drawn in by the comical aspect.
Among religious art, pictures of hell have always been around. This summertime exhibit showcases how these have changed over the centuries.
The exhibit is open every day, except Mondays, until September 3, 2017. Ordinary admission is 1,300 yen. For questions, call +81-(0)3-5777-8600. The exhibit will change throughout the summer.
Kazuhiko Shibusawa is a staff writer of the Sankei Shimbun Cultural news department.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)