The history of Japanese theater-going differs profoundly from that of the western tradition, to the point that comparing the two seems fruitless. But setting Japanese theater in its proper historical and social context shows that both theatrical tradtitions accomplish the same goal -- entertainment -- in very different ways.

While Western theater strives to involve the viewer in its story with realistic, relevant portrayals of characters and situations, this is not necessarily the goal of Japanese theater. As we can see from the writings of Chikamatsu, even the most passionate emotions must be understated, to allow the viewer to read his own interpretation of the characters into the story.

That traditional Japanese theater does not strive for literal realism is obvious; what, then, is its aim? Any Noh actor will tell you that yuugen, for example, is not so much literal beauty but a metaphor for an ideal -- two levels away from the "real thing", but more suitable for contemplation.

So by using all these levels of abstraction, the aim of Japanese theater shifts from involving the audience in the play to involving the audience in the theatrical experience. This is especially true for kabuki and bunraku. In the former the actors will step out of character to comment on the performance, and in the latter, the pupperteers are visible on stage! But by being so visible and accessable (early Kabuki actors were "accessable" in every sense of the word) the performers bring the aesthetic, the "art" of their occupation to the audience, unmediated by the drive towards literal realism that chararcterizes western theater.

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