Hosokawa (Nakamura), aka "the Paramount Lord," wants the ethnic Korean painter Yoshihige (Nakadai) to decorate a lavish Buddhist temple he's building with art glorifying the Buddha and his teachings. Yoshihige wants the fame that will come from painting the temple walls, but refuses the recommended subjects because he only paints what he knows. Lately he can't get out of his mind the sight of an old man who was trampled by a bull that had broken loose from the Paramount Lord's Chinese carriage during a festival. Yoshihige paints a portrait of the corpse, disgusting the PL who orders it destroyed. The painter reluctantly complies but warns the PL that he'll most likely paint it over again.
Another issue divides the two men. Yoshihige has kept his daughter (Yoko Naito) on a tight leash and resents her seeing his one non-Korean student. The young man has nothing to do but become a brigand after Yoshihige drives him from the studio. When Yoshika runs away from home in search of her love, she ends up in the PL's custody, now destined to become his concubine. She becomes a pawn in their artistic negotiations, which seem finally to end in compromise. Yoshihige will paint a scene of the Buddhist hell on a large screen. If PL accepts this as a masterpiece, he'll let the painter do a larger version of the scene in the temple.
It's good to be the Paramount Lord (left) but Yoshihige (second from right) isn't beaten yet.
While Yoshihige boasts of his high Korean culture (and the Japanese, as usual, despise Koreans), he seems to have attended the Coffin Joe School of Art. Realizing that he can't quite paint a portrait of Hell according to his own paint-what-you've-seen principles, he subjects one of his assistants to torture, chaining the lad, hanging from the ceiling, then leaving him laying on the floor bound and helpless while Yoshihige cracks open an urn full of live snakes. At this point most viewers might judge the painter slightly ahead in the "who's worse" race.
Paramount Lord closes the gap soon enough. Yoshihige tells him that the screen painting is almost done, except for one detail. The thing that'd really pull the painting together is a burning Chinese carriage with a man screaming inside, so would PL please provide a carriage to burn? PL is happy to make some sacrifices for art, but he has a bad feeling that Yoshihige would like him to pose personally inside of the burning carriage. Having convinced himself of this, PL figures that a cool way to turn the tables on the arrogant artist would be to have the role of the doomed passenger played by Yoshika. This really seems to be all about the carriage as far as PL is concerned. Ha ha! he says; you don't really want the carriage burnt now that she's inside, do you? He's taken aback a bit when Yoshihige practically dares him to do it -- we learn later that Yoshika had warned PL about this possibility -- and PL can't lose face by refusing the dare. So the pretty young woman burns, cursing both men, while Yoshihige writhes in despair until he hears her last words -- she cries the name of her art-student lover. Then he turns crazy calm and gazes at the pyre with an artist's icy eye, promising ultimate victory to himself.
The denouement gets into spooky territory and I won't spoil it. But it got me thinking about the challenge of adapting literature about art to film. Literature can get away with attributing awesome if not supernatural powers to works of art because it can leave the details of the artwork to the imagination. The author can get away with saying the art has this fantastic effect on people pretty much because he says so. Put that same story on film and you probably have no choice but to show us the piece of art that has such a stupendous effect -- and then you risk the audience questioning whether the art they actually see can have the effect the original writer imagines. The studio artist you hire is most likely not the equal of the fictional artist in their common field, so the attempt to show never can live up to what the writer tells.
Shiro Toyoda helps himself out of this trap by establishing that Paramount Lord is already in a highly-agitated, suggestible state of mind when he finally sees Yoshihige's finished work. Then he takes our minds off the adequacy of the painting by bombing us with special effects. On top of that, he's got a master thespian in Nakamura putting over PL's madness. This was Nakamura's second 1969 team-up with Nakadai, but while Hideo Gosha's Goyokin is the better film, Portrait of Hell, in which Nakamura gets top billing, gives him more opportunity to cut loose. For that matter, since both actors are stoic heroes in Goyokin Nakadai is also more intense if not hammy here, but the material demands that both men go over the top and they do it with grand style. They're the heart of the film's horror, and their implacable, irreconcilable egoism is ultimately more hellish than any vision Toyoda can whip up. Thanks to his actors, Toyoda made a memorably horrific picture.