Viewers may wish to avert their eyes from these grisly scenes of people collapsed in bloody heaps or grimacing in pain amid fierce flames.
Buddhism teaches that we are reincarnated in one of six worlds after death, depending on how we behaved when alive. The worst of these is the realm of hell. The paintings here are based on descriptions of hell in the Shobonenjo-kyo, a sutra containing the teachings of the Buddha.
These four scenes depict the four levels of hell and the sufferings that await people who have committed various crimes related to alcohol. The first two levels focus on people writhing in agony, while the third and fourth levels feature a bird‘s eye view of people undergoing various kinds of torture. The compositional structure shifts with each scene to present a clear picture of the different torments that await each respective sinner. All the scenes are rendered in simple black and red tones, a device that accentuates the horrors and truly makes this a guide to hell.
These kinds of hell paintings were made to warn people of the punishments that awaited if they misbehaved. They also sated the curiosity of people who wanted to know what the hell of the Buddhist scriptures looked like.