Portrait of Hell is a ferocious horror film based on the short story "Hell Screen" by weird writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke, whose tales "In a Grove" & "Rashomon" became the Kurosawa classic Rashomon.
It's about the greatest painter of Japan, played by the Shakespearean-superb Tatsuya Nakadai. He is at first commissioned to paint a portrait of Heaven reflecting the glories & rewards of Lord Hosokawa's divine lineage. The painter rejects the commission, claiming he can paint only the truth of what he sees, & for a mural to be inspired by the biography of a tyrant, a portrait of Hell would be more appropriate.
The insulted Hosokawa is played with venomous humor by Kinnosuke Nakamura, classically trained in a famous kabuki family & just about a match for Nakadai's tremendous talent. The minimalist sets gives the impression of a live theater performance, & these are the actors to pull that off, the manic artist with obsession in gaze vs the outwardly calm ruler who has mistaken himself for a god.
The Lord menacingly challenges the painter to a different commission: He will paint a screen portrait of Emma's hell, then Lord Hosokawa will judge whether is mural will be a portrait of Heaven or of Hell.
Since he can only paint that which he actually sees, the painter undertakes a Dantean excursion into the world of poverty & starvation, tortures his assistant to capture expressions of pain, but is still not sufficiently inspired to capture the horrors of Hell. Only the torture of his own soul will reveal to him the depth of horrors he must capture for the hell screen.
The battle of wills between the Lord & the Artist leads ultimately to the madness of both men. Through the fate of the painter's daughter, will penultimately fulfill the artist's desire to see into Hell & finish his painting, but he cannot live after what he has seen. Unleashed ghosts drive even Lord Hosokawa to suicide.
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