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Having beans thrown at you, being glared at while sitting in a flower…what horror!

So, Hell. It’s supposed to be a scary, not-so-cool place, right? All that fire and torture and eternal suffering are supposed to be the ultimate punishment for not acting like a good person during your life. Makes sense that it would be depicted as a pretty miserable place in artwork then, right?

Well not according to one early Meiji-era (1868-1912) publication: The Hell Picture Book (or Hell Picture Scroll if we’re translating literally). Some of the illustrations seem like they’re meant to make the reader laugh out loud rather than instill any fear in them.

▼ The very first illustration on the scroll: a goofy-looking skeleton playing a shamisen.
I didn’t know Hell was supposed to look like an elementary school haunted house.

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▼ Oh, the horror! The horror of…uh, being weighed for eternity?

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▼ “So what are you doing in Hell?”
“Eh, just hanging out.”

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But before you think that all Japanese depictions of Hell are so lenient, here are two pictures from around 700 years earlier belonging to another depiction of torment in the afterlife, the 12th century Hell Scroll, in which people are beaten into flames…


▼ …and also suffering in a lake of boiling blood! Yikes!


But when we go back to the Hell Picture Scroll we see…

▼ …people having beans thrown at them by demons…

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▼ …and being poked while sitting in a flower.
Oh the minor inconvenience of it all!

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But the torture doesn’t end there! There’s this, uh, picture of a demon showing the word “evil” to some guys…

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…and these two people who appear to be fanning a demon. Scary stuff.

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The demon looks downright sympathetic in this one, like he’s about to say: “Hey, do you need some help carrying that?”

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Here’s one of the few actually tortuous ones, but even here the expression on the demon’s face is something like: “I wish I didn’t have to do this, but a job is a job….”

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And even after that, it’s back to playing cat games with the silly little humans.

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But perhaps the most hilarious/horrifying torture of them all: being forced to listen to some guy read stuff to you. Although the big dude and the one guy on the ground look like they’re sharing a laugh together.

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I don’t know about you, but these images of Hell don’t exactly have me shaking in my shoes. Maybe that was the intent of the original work, as a parody of the more serious images that came before it? Or perhaps the artist simply wanted to reassure himself that the afterlife wasn’t as bad as others had said.

Either way, we’re just glad to see that the human tradition of not taking things seriously was just as strong over a hundred years ago as it is today.

Source: Waseda University Library via CuRAZY
Images: Waseda University Library