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!