Noh and Kyogen: Lessons For School Teachers

Teaching Noh and Kyogen at elementary, middle, and high schools is part of a larger plan to educate the Japanese youth in the Japanese classic performing arts introduced by the ministry of education in recent years. This sounds like a good idea, as one of the biggest problems the contemporary world of Noh is facing is its inability to attract young audiences. If kids received more exposure to Noh and Kyogen, they could grow an interest in it, or at least it would not feel as alien as it does to most young Japanese. Teaching Noh at school sounds good… but how? Critics of this educational plan pointed out how school teachers, many of whom are ignorant of the classic arts in general, are in fact the reason why kids don’t get to like Noh and Kyogen. Adding plays to textbooks is not sufficient: teachers need to know what they are talking about in order to make the topic meaningful and engaging.

Kongo School Noh workshop at Uji Shiritsu Nanbu Elementary School

In order to address this important issue the Nōgaku Kyōkai (Noh Professionals Association) has organised educational activities in which Noh professionals visit schools and give workshops both to students and teachers. Last year I attended one of these at the Uji Shiritsu Nanbu Elementary School. The workshop was led by Udaka Tatsushige, who is one of the performers in charge of such activities for the Kyoto area. It was an interesting experience, and he students responded very well to the various activities offered.

Kongo School Noh workshop at Uji Shiritsu Nanbu Elementary School

However, sporadic visits to schools will not yield outstanding results: some Noh groups such as the Katayama family in Kyoto and the Tessen-kai in Tokyo are providing more extensive and regular teaching sessions, specifically aimed at instructing the teachers, who will then be able to lecture on Noh and Kyogen even without the need of specialists. One of these sessions, commissioned by the Agency for Cultural Affaires and organised by Tessen-kai, will take place at the Tessen-kai research office in Tokyo on August 22nd and 23rd from 13:00 to 18:00. This event targets school teachers and educators, who will be able attend the performance of the Kyogen Kaki Yamabushi (‘Persimmon Yamabushi’) and the Noh Hagoromo (‘The Robe of Feathers’), plays that feature current school textbooks. Participants will also join practical sessions on performance techniques, as well as lectures on the dramaturgy and history of Noh and Kyogen. The event is free of charge.


Rehearsals? That wouldn’t be Noh

As I have written in a previous post, I am about to leave for London where a group of Noh performers from Kyoto and Osaka will perform Noh music and dances at the London Contemporary Music Festival. I am lucky enough to be serving in the ji-utai chorus, and as the day draws near I am getting excited, but also a little nervous about performing Noh in such an unusual context. Even in Japan, Noh is not only performed in Noh theatres: there are a variety of ‘alternative’ stages, such as outdoors stages at shrines or indoors platforms at hotel banquet halls, where Noh is regularly performed. However this time our group will perform in an ex-carpet factory, in front of a mixed audience (the other acts are Stockhausen and Pain Jerk) who might not be familiar with Noh theatre’s conventions, and most importantly our schedule is so tight that will not have much time to familiarise with the local mood (and time zone).

The hyōshiban, a wood block used in training to reproduce the beats of the three drums. (Photo: Elaine Czech)
The hyōshiban, a wood block used in training to reproduce the beats of the three drums. (Photo: Elaine Czech)

How does a group of Noh performers ‘get ready’ for this kind of event? It’s simple, we don’t. ^_^ Noh performers study a shared canon of plays that consist of pre-established choreographies and musical scores, but they do so separately. Movements, lines, drums and flute patterns are the same, but there are various ‘stylistic schools’ for each role. For example, this time Kongō school actors will meet with Morita School flute, Kō School shoulder drum, Kanze School hip drum and Konparu School Taiko. This is one of the many possible combination of schools, and each will perform according to their specific way of interpreting the canon. What is exciting about Noh is that since everyone knows  what they are going to play, and what the others are going to play on stage, there is no need for weeks of rehearsals. A brief and even partial run-through, known as mōshiawase, is all you need to check that you are ‘on the same page’ with the others.

This quality of impromptu is what allows every Noh performance to be unique and fresh, reflecting the Japanese notion of ichi-goichi-e, which one could translate as ‘one meeting, one chance’. So when I asked Tatsushige-sensei, who is leading our band, how long would we need to rehearse our programme on the performance day, he replied that we absolutely need to avoid ‘over-rehearsing’, as ‘that wouldn’t be Noh’.

So I hope you will make to the London Contemporary Music Festival on May 29th – it’s your one and only chance!

School or ryu?

When I introduce myself or talk about my training in Noh, I often find myself in need to explain what I mean by ‘Kongō school’ (金剛流 Kongō-ryū). There is a common misunderstanding deriving from the use of the word ‘school’ (or it. scuola; fr. école; ger. Schule – it extends to all European languages) as translation of the Japanese ryū. Since many have asked me to explain what exactly a ‘Noh school’ is, I would like to use this space to clarify a couple of things regarding this matter.

The Kongo School stage
The Kongo School stage

The Kongō school, to which I belong, is one of the five stylistic schools of shite actors (the others being Kanze, Komparu, Hōshō, and Kita). ‘School’ is none other than a free translation of ryū (lit. ‘current’, or ‘flow’), a word defining a performance style peculiar to a certain group of actors who are organised in a ‘guild’, a pyramid structure on top of which is the iemoto (lit. ‘foundation/origin of the house’). These ryū are the contemporary configuration of troupes of performers called za, which emerged in the Muromachi period, and that later underwent a process of professionalisation that led to the creation of ryū specialised in particular roles and instruments. Various styles, or ‘ways of performing’ a specific element of Noh become formalised during the Edo period, multiplying the possible combinations of chant, dance, drum and flute performance when these elements come together on stage. In fact, one of the difficulties performers need to face is getting used to a variety of styles in order to be able to perform with more than one ryū, because all performing roles (as shite actors are grouped in the five ryū mentioned above, waki, kyogen, taiko, ko-tsuzumi, ō-tsuzumi, fue – all have different ryū). For example, a Kongō-ryū shite could perform with a Fukuō-ryū waki or a Takayasu-ryū waki, with a kō-ryū or okura-ryū ko-tsuzumi, etc. (However, ryū are not represented equally across the territory, which makes it so that some ryū always get to perform with a certain other ryū more often than others… it’s getting complicated… I might need to write another post to explain this).

The Noh ryū system

Anyway, each ryū has a iemoto on top of it, and his (male) heirs immediately under him. However, ryū are also composed of other families which have been affiliated with a certain ryū, and might to some extent have developed a particular ‘style within the style’. Although dependent to the iemoto supreme leader, such families achieve a certain degree of independence which has often led (and still leads) to power struggles within the ryū. The obvious example is the Umewaka family, a formerly independent group which were incorporated into the Kanze school at the beginning of the Edo period (early seventeenth century). When, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Umewaka family attempted to declare independence, it was excommunicated from the Kanze school by the iemoto, only to rejoin a few years later. Disputes like this are common in the history of Noh, and still continue today.

In short, a ryū is a conglomerate of individuals, some of whom are descendants of families that have been in the Noh profession for generations, while others are associates of these families – they can be amateur students who turn to professionalism, or relatives adopted into the professional family. The iemoto family, from which the style takes the name, is the highest ranking within the school. The iemoto himself, as the ultimate leader of the school, holds the rights to grant teaching licenses, to authorise performances, to revise and publish scripts (hence to earn publication revenues), to accept and to expel members, etc.

This is to say that a Noh ‘school’ is not an educational institution like a drama academy, with lectures, practice rooms, recitals, etc. Noh actors do practice and perform recital, but their training and performance is not structured and regulated as in a Western-style conservatory. There is no ‘school building’ where all trainees report to in the morning. Most young professionals are either born into families of professionals, or become apprentices (uchi-deshi, or house-apprentice) to a professional. This means they either visit the home/practice space (the two do not necessarily coincide) of their teacher, or else they actually live in the home/practice space. This second option, called sumi-komi (live-in) is normal when the teacher is the iemoto or a high-ranking actor from an affluent family with a long heritage in the Noh profession, simply because these two figures are the only ones likely to own a stage as well as facilities big enough to serve the purpose of training disciples. An additional reason is that proximity to the origin of tradition (i.e. the iemoto) is likely to provide the ‘purest quality of technique’, as opposed to learning from another teacher, whose style will be similar but different from that of the iemoto. Finally, learning directly from the iemoto allows a performer to… well, claim that he/she has learnt directly from the iemoto: it is pedigree. For example, my teacher (Udaka Michishige) was uchi-deshi of the previous iemoto (Kongō Iwao II), which means he had direct transmission, while I am removed by one degree. In a small school like the Kongō school, undergoing an uchi-deshi training period with the iemoto is the only way to ensure a young actor is exposed to all the necessary kinds of knowledge he/she will need in order to become a full professional.

I feel like I have made things more complex than I intended to – feel free to ask for clarification if you need to!