‘Tomino’s Hell’ was published in 1919 in Yaso’s collection Sakin, or in English, Gold Dust. It is thought that when read aloud this poem brings death and tragedy on whoever has dared to do so. There are several rumors of deaths that some say resulted due to reading this particular piece out loud. These include a film director who made a movie titled Denen ni Shisu, released in 1974 that was based loosely around this poem and a university student. The mystery that’s been created around ‘Tomino’s Hell’ has allowed it to maintain a cult popularity.
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Summary of Tomino’s Hell
The poem uses intense and disturbing images to depict this journey. He falls as if truly entering hell, to the deepest level. He is made to suffer along the way and when he gets there, he cries out for his sisters and the warmer, joyous pre-war world he used to inhabit.
You can read the full poem in English and Japanese here.
Structure of Tomino’s Hell
‘Tomino’s Hell’ by Saijō Yaso was originally written in Japanese. Since the poem has been translated into English and it is that English version that will be analyzed in this article. The line breaks, any rhyme or half-rhyme, as well as examples of other literary techniques such as alliteration, or repetition, may not have existed in the original version. In this particular translation, the text has been separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. There are in total thirteen.
Analysis of Tomino’s Hell
Stanzas One and Two
In the first stanzas of ‘Tomino’s Hell,’ the speaker introduces several strange and unusual images. These describe Tomino and his sisters fantastically, setting the tone for the rest of the poem. Tomino is throwing up his soul, or his “tama”. The second stanza informs the reader that the main character is on his way to hell. He falls alone into the “utter darkness”.
This brings in themes of solitude, loneliness, fear, darkness, and many others. The darkness is “without even flowers”. This is a very interesting addition to this stanza and may be interpreted by readers in several different ways. Most obviously as this new world he’s entering into is one that is without any redeeming qualities.
While the poem might reference hell, some readers and translations have determined this piece to be a larger metaphor for war. He is not falling through a physical afterlife, but one that’s very much of our world. Tomino is young and is perhaps giving himself and his soul over to a cause. With this possible interpretation in mind, other aspects of the poem start to make more sense.
Stanzas Three and Four
In the next stanzas the speaker goes on to ask a general question, they do not expect an answer but it does provide the reader with some more background information. Someone whips Tomino, maybe its his big sister, maybe its someone else. He is tortured on this journey lashed and thrashed about but there’s nothing he can do to halt his journey “to Avici / the eternal hell”. Avici is an allusion to the lowest level of the Naraka or the realm of hell in Buddhism. It is where those who have committed the most terrible deeds end up.
The whipping appears futile or lacking in these lines. It is never quite hitting or shattering, as if it is in the end it is purposeless. This could represent the efforts of Tomino in this possible war, fighting back against an enemy.
Stanzas Five and Six
In the next stanzas of ‘Tomino’s Hell,’ the speaker reemphasizes the fact that Tomino is headed for the worst place imaginable. The speaker also transitions into the first person, describing themselves praying for Tomino. Tomino is being punished but for the reader, it is unclear why this is the case. The speaker describes praying to the “golden sheep” and the “nightingale”. Perhaps these are references to Tomino’s sisters or are symbols for something deeper and more metaphorical. They might refer simply to the world above, one that is defined by calmer, warmer, and more joyous imagery.
The sixth stanza alludes to the fact that Tomino knew he was going to hell and could’ve had some time to prepare for it. But, did he? The speaker is unsure, asking a rhetorical question of the reader. The journey is a “trek” something that is very obvious at this point. There is no pleasure to be had on this trip.
The seventh and eighth stanzas bring in more images just as fantastical as those which have come before them. He cries for his sister or sisters during this period and young Tomino continues to suffer. The youth’s desperation in these lines is the clearest of all the images. The speaker brings in another important one though, that of buttercups. It is important to note, perhaps, thatches flowers come into the story after the speaker has asserted that there re no flowers in hell.
Stanzas Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen
In the final three stanzas of ‘Tomino’s Hell,’ the speaker describes Tomino traveling through the seven mountains the seven valleys of hell. This is his solo, solitary journey. The speaker also reemphasizes the boy’s youth. This is juxtaposed against the terror of his war-like surroundings. It is on the eighth level of hell that he is going to suffer the worst.
The twelfth and thirteenth stanzas like refer to soldiers, the patterns of their clothes, and how the women sewed them in. These might’ve given the wearer strength in the face of battle. The “blood-red pins” that appear in the last lines could refer again to this idea of sewing in and waring symbols, known as senninbari in Japanese.
They were white clothes that were seen with a thousand red stitches by as many women as possible. The red dots, in some circumstances, would be used to identify the body if Tomino was to die. In his case though they don’t stand out as a sign leading the way to Tomino. This perhaps alludes to his larger destiny, to become lost forever.