KABUKI ABC (62) / Mahabharata: Modern kabuki deftly depicts chronicles of war in ancient India

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Onoe Kikunosuke

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterAn epic poem written in ancient India has been turned into a kabuki drama for the first time. Called “Kiwametsuki Indo-den Mahabharata Senki” (The War Chronicles of the Mahabharata), the show is being performed in the matinee of the “Geijutsusai Jugatsu Okabuki” (Art festival October grand kabuki) at the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo’s Higashi-Ginza district until Oct. 25.

The new play was created thanks to the enthusiasm of Onoe Kikunosuke, a kabuki actor who plays the leading role. It combines the formal beauty of kabuki and the talents of people working in the modern dramatic arts. As a result, a drama like a beautiful illustrated scroll was born.

The original Mahabharata is an extraordinarily long story that consists of more than 100,000 stanzas in a total of 18 volumes. The poem is thought to have been put into its current form in the fourth or fifth century.

The Mahabharata is said to be one of the world’s three greatest epic poems. The other two are the Iliad and the Odyssey, both of which were written in Greece.

The Mahabharata contains a wide range of themes including philosophy, religion and moral affairs. It also depicts fierce power struggles between two royal families, which then develop into a big, hopeless war.

The birth of this kabuki drama dates back three years. Kikunosuke had seen another drama based on the same epic, “Mahabharata — Nala Oh no Boken” (The adventures of King Nala), directed by Satoshi Miyagi, the general artistic director of the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC).

Kikunosuke said he thought at the time: “I was deeply impressed by that. It could be a kabuki drama.” So he asked Miyagi to cooperate on the project.

Kikunosuke and his collaborators took a different approach from that of the SPAC version, which did not depict scenes of war.

The kabuki version focuses on what happened in the lead-up to the wars. Kikunosuke said, “It’s like the toshi kyogen of ‘Kanadehon Chushingura.’” Toshi kyogen is a way of performing a drama in its entirety, from beginning to end in one go.

Miyagi directs the drama, and Go Aoki, a playwright who has written across a wide range, from TV dramas to modern stage dramas, is in charge of the script.

Choosing from among a huge number of characters in the original epic, they settled on Karna as the protagonist. His parents were the god of the sun and a human, and he is also an expert archer.

Kikunosuke is playing the role of Karna. He explained: “The conflicting relationship between the two families is like that between the Genji and the Heike [Japanese feudal clans in the 12th century]. Karna is in a position of belonging to both families from one perspective, but to neither from another point of view, and he is given a mission by a god to prevent war between the families. The character is similar to Kumagai Jiro Naozane in ‘Kumagai Jinya’ [a kabuki drama].”

This is the first kabuki play Kikunosuke has taken the initiative to produce since he created “Ninagawa Juniya,” which was directed by Yukio Ninagawa and first performed in 2005.

Kikunosuke said: “Other kabuki actors in the same generation as me, such as Ichikawa Ebizo, Ichikawa Ennosuke and Ichikawa Somegoro, have created new dramas almost every year. Though I’m not good at doing this sort of thing, I want to continue to have a spirit of creating new dramas while carefully holding onto traditional ones, to open the door to the world of kabuki more widely.”

In this new play, many modern staging techniques have been introduced. These include using percussion in the music and huge folding screens on which pictures are drawn as backgrounds. However, traditional kabuki music is still fully utilized.

In the opening scenes, the grandeur of the Ganges River is told in the gidayu style of narration. The creators also try to express profound themes of Indian philosophy in the gidayu style.

Miyagi said: “We Japanese drama directors have an advantage compared with our overseas counterparts in that the traditional drama performers here are active on the front line. We have utilized much of their stocks of skill and wisdom.”

The writer of this column watched the new drama on Oct. 2. In the war scenes in the final act, the speedy movements of the actors, the uplifting sounds of percussion, and the dynamic “tsuke” (sound effects particular to kabuki) were woven together. These scenes had a tremendous impact, one that I have never seen before in other kabuki performances.

I hope people will go to the theater to confirm whether my description is correct.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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