The Screen Maiden is a Japanese story preserved by Lafcadio Hearn in his book titled, Shadowings which was published in 1900. Hearn also went by the pen name Koizumi Yakumo. His works focus on Japanese culture. His most famous work is, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things which was later made into the movie Kwaidan by Masaki Kobayashi.
Discussion questions and resources for teachers are located at the bottom.
The Screen Maiden
by Lafcadio Hearn
There was a young scholar of Kyōto whose name was Tokkei. He used to live in the street called Muromachi. One evening, while on his way home after a visit, his attention was attracted by an old single-leaf screen (tsuitaté), exposed for sale before the shop of a dealer in second-hand goods. It was only a paper-covered screen; but there was painted upon it the full-length figure of a girl which caught the young man’s fancy. The price asked was very small: Tokkei bought the screen, and took it home with him.
When he looked again at the screen, in the solitude of his own room, the picture seemed to [Pg 25] him much more beautiful than before. Apparently it was a real likeness,—the portrait of a girl fifteen or sixteen years old; and every little detail in the painting of the hair, eyes, eyelashes, mouth, had been executed with a delicacy and a truth beyond praise. The manajiri seemed “like a lotus-blossom courting favor”; the lips were “like the smile of a red flower”; the whole young face was inexpressibly sweet. If the real girl so portrayed had been equally lovely, no man could have looked upon her without losing his heart. And Tokkei believed that she must have been thus lovely;—for the figure seemed alive,—ready to reply to anybody who might speak to it.
Gradually, as he continued to gaze at the picture, he felt himself bewitched by the charm of it. “Can there really have been in this world,” he murmured to himself, “so delicious a creature? How gladly would I give my life—nay, a thousand years of life!—to hold her in my arms even for a moment!” In short, he became enamored of the picture,—so much enamored of it as to feel that he never could love any woman except the person whom it represented. Yet that person, if still alive, could no longer resemble the painting: perhaps she had been buried long before he was born!
Day by day, nevertheless, this hopeless passion grew upon him. He could not eat; he could not sleep: neither could he occupy his mind with those studies which had formerly delighted him. He would sit for hours before the picture, talking to it,—neglecting or forgetting everything else. And at last he fell sick—so sick that he believed himself going to die.
Now among the friends of Tokkei there was one venerable scholar who knew many strange things about old pictures and about young hearts. This aged scholar, hearing of Tokkei’s illness, came to visit him, and saw the screen, and understood what had happened. Then Tokkei, being questioned, confessed everything to his friend, and declared:—”If I cannot find such a woman, I shall die.”
The old man said:—
“That picture was painted by Hishigawa Kichibei,—painted from life. The person whom it represented is not now in the world. But it is said that Hishigawa Kichibei painted her mind as well as her form, and that her spirit lives in the picture. So I think that you can win her.”
Tokkei half rose from his bed, and stared eagerly at the speaker.
“You must give her a name,” the old man continued;—”and you must sit before her picture every day, and keep your thoughts constantly fixed upon her, and call her gently by the name which you have given her, until she answers you….”
“Answers me!” exclaimed the lover, in breathless amazement.
“Oh, yes,” the adviser responded, “she will certainly answer you. But you must be ready, when she answers you, to present her with what I am going to tell you….”
“I will give her my life!” cried Tokkei.
“No,” said the old man;—”you will present her with a cup of wine that has been bought at one hundred different wine-shops. Then she will come out of the screen to accept the wine. After that, probably she herself will tell you what to do.”
With these words the old man went away. His advice aroused Tokkei from despair. At once he seated himself before the picture, and called it by the name of a girl—(what name the Japanese narrator has forgotten to tell us)—over and over again, very tenderly. That day it made no answer, nor the next day, nor the next. But Tokkei did not lose faith or patience; and after many days it suddenly one evening answered to its name,—
Then quickly, quickly, some of the wine from a hundred different wine-shops was poured out, and reverentially presented in a little cup. And the girl stepped from the screen, and walked upon the matting of the room, and knelt to take the cup from Tokkei’s hand,—asking, with a delicious smile:—
“How could you love me so much?”
Says the Japanese narrator: “She was much more beautiful than the picture,—beautiful to the tips of her finger-nails,—beautiful also in heart and temper,—lovelier than anybody else in the world.” What answer Tokkei made to her question is not recorded: it will have to be imagined.
“But will you not soon get tired of me?” she asked.
“Never while I live!” he protested.
“And after—?” she persisted;—for the Japanese bride is not satisfied with love for one life-time only.
“Let us pledge ourselves to each other,” he entreated, “for the time of seven existences.”
“If you are ever unkind to me,” she said, “I will go back to the screen.”
They pledged each other. I suppose that Tokkei was a good boy,—for his bride never returned to the screen. The space that she had occupied upon it remained a blank.
Questions for Discussion
- What are some of the ways symbolism is present in this story?
- What is the significance of Tokkei willing something into existence? Does the significance change when that something is a someone?
- Today, particularly in western culture, we may view the depiction of the screen maiden as a depiction of the objectification of women. However, we engage in similar practices of our own. The Hollywood starlet who plays the seductive role to capture the attention of men in the audience, the supermodel on the cover of the magazine, the influencer on Instagram—all of these are doing essentially the same thing. How much of what we see in this Japanese story makes us question our cultural practices of objectification?
- The supernatural plays a large role in this story. Our western lens may scoff at the notions of these influences, but we have representations of supernatural forces at play throughout much of western literature. Why do you think supernatural forces can play such a large part in the creation of culture?
- In a five-paragraph essay, explore something that you wish you could will into existence and three reasons why you think it would be a good idea.
- In a five-paragraph essay, discuss whether you think being able to will something into existence is a good idea or not.
- Create your own screen with the depiction of something that you would like to manifest into existence. Then write an instruction manual of how to make it manifest.
- Write a short story about how the venerable scholar found out how to make the maiden come alive from the screen.