A beautiful courtesan stands looking to the left with the sleeve of her sumptuously patterned robe raised alluringly towards her face. Extraordinary scenes of Hell cover her clothes. At the centre is Enma (King of Hell) seated on a throne surrounded by seven of his judges, as he records the misdeeds of sinners prostrating themselves before him. Surrounding this are vivid scenes of assorted types of infernal torment – demons presiding over beatings, burnings and boilings.
The hell scenes tell us that the beautiful courtesan is Jigoku Dayu [Hell Courtesan]. The painting is based on a kabuki play entitled Jigoku Ikkyu banashi [the Story of Ikkyu and Jigoku], adapted from a piece of comic literature and performed in 1865. Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481), son of an emperor and 47th abbot of the great Zen temple Daitokuji, was one of the most venerable - if eccentric - priests in the history of medieval Buddhism. According to the plot of the play, Ikkyu enters a brothel and meets the ironically-named courtesan Jigoku [Hell]. As he dances with brothel inmates Jikoku peeps from behind a screen and to her astonishment sees that Ikkyu’s comely entertainers have shrivelled to their bare bones. The vision vanishes when she rejoins the group. The moral: beneath even the most glittering facade lurks inevitable death. Jigoku finds enlightenment with this graphic demonstration of human impermanence.