ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Herbert P. Caine is the pseudonym of a frustrated academic and genre movie fan in Pennsylvania. You can read his blog at https://imaginaryuniverseshpc.blogspot.com.
When people think of religious scare films, they generally think of Christian productions such as Blood Freak, The Burning Hell or Unplanned. Those with more international tastes may remember Muslim works such as the anti-Salman Rushdie epic International Guerrillas, which ends with Rushdie being incinerated by lightning bolts from a flying Qur’an. However, thanks to a recent review in Shock Cinema magazine, I found a rare Buddhist entry in the genre. The Precious Jade Calendar is a Chinese-language animated TV series that offers viewers a lengthy tour of Buddhist hell. Even though the show appears to be intended for children, reportedly having run in a Saturday afternoon timeslot, it is as bloody as any adult-oriented anime.
This animated series is based off a Chinese text purportedly given to a monk by the rulers of hell in the eleventh century, although as Reed College Professor Ken Brashier notes, there are no known copies of it from prior to the nineteenth century. The Precious Jade Calendar, also known as the Jade Records and the Jade Guidebook, is essentially a tourist guide to hell. It describes the various subsections of hell – called small hells – and the sins that are punished in each one.
The series opens with two young boys at a Buddhist monastery talking. One feels guilty about having accidentally killed young birds in a bird’s nest he knocked down, so they go speak to the head of the monastery, who proceeds to describe hell in all its glory to them. From then on, each episode discusses a specific palace of hell where sinners from a particular category are judged and punished. Every so often, the children ask such cheerful questions as why do so many of the small hells feature tortures that involve tearing out someone’s guts.
The various small hells display an infernal division of labor that would make Dante seem creatively bankrupt. Among the hells the series warns of are “The Small Hell of Blood and Pus,” “The Small Hell Where Brain Is Taken Out to Feed Hedgehogs,” “The Small Hell Where People Are Eaten by Ants,” and “The Small Hell Where People Are Drilled by Purple Red Viper.” Although the series’ animation is limited, with figures remaining largely static other than moving their arms and blinking their eyes, the bloodshed is still quite graphic. Lots of blood splatters across the screen, and hearts and other organs are vividly torn from bodies.
Although Westerners often regard Buddhism as a more tolerant religion than many Judeo-Christian traditions, the variant on display here is as harsh and fear-based as anything preached by Jerry Falwell or Estus Pirkle. In one episode, making or distributing pornography is put on the same level as committing murder or raping teenagers. More troubling is the show’s assertion that disabilities or diseases are the outgrowths of wrongdoing in either this life or a previous life. At one point, the show asserts that infants born with missing limbs or other deformities were cannibals in a previous life. Similarly, one vignette depicts three siblings who mistreat their parents. One ends up getting struck by lightning, another dies of AIDS, and a third contracts cancer. This type of victim-blaming can result in the same type of ostracism that many people infected with HIV faced in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Obviously, not all Buddhists would endorse this dark vision, but this series should serve as a footnote to Western stereotypes of Buddhism as necessarily a more forgiving religion.
The Precious Jade Calendar is available on YouTube broken up into parts on this channel.