One of my most vivid memories my first week in Japan was the sight of two giant fembots being lugged around by a Hummer on the streets of Shinjuku. Somehow, the advertisement has become a familiar sight. Yet, despite living in Tokyo for a year and a half now, I still had not experienced the Robot Restaurant.
Photo : Yamashita Yohei on FlickrThe restaurant / cabaret show garners a sparkling 4.5 star average on Tripadvisor, earning almost universal praise since its debut in 2012. This is impressive considering both the cost (7,000 yen at the door, 6,500 online) and frequency (three shows a night, four on weekends) of its performances.
Curious as to what the fuss was all about, a few friends and I headed into the heart of Kabukichō - Tokyo’s red-light district, and one of the few places in Japan your government warns you about – to take the leap last week. And leap is right. The Robot Restaurant requires an open mind and a sense of irony.
Even the entrance can’t help itself. Giant video billboards adorn the path from the alleyway. The storefront resembles a pachinko parlor, only with more screens, more LED lights, just more. We are whisked into an elevator that wouldn’t be out of place in a disco. Gaudy is an understatement.
Photo : Richard Schneider on FlickrEarly for our show, we head up to the third floor waiting room, already overwhelmed. Then the elevator doors opened. Did a rainbow vomit here? Chandeliers, mirrors, and video screens are ubiquitous. I somehow don’t even notice the robot band until I walk right by the stage.
Photo : Scott Edmunds on FlickrWe find an open space, resting in extravagant chairs - thrones, really. My eyes keep darting around, my brain failing to make sense of my surroundings. I giggle at the absurdity of it all. The theme of the lounge seems to be the manifestation of a hyperactive teenage boy’s imagination: robots, dragons, women.
Photo : Scott Edmunds on FlickrVideo screens tease us with what is to come. That the vast majority of the crowd waiting appear to be other foreigners does nothing to detract from the experience: this night will not be about authenticity. It barely seems to be about Japan, or Earth, for that matter.
With the show soon to start, we head down the garish stairwell. There are different motifs: butterflies, flowers - all of it bright. We reach the basement, which opens into a modest-sized stage area. It’s a long strip of real estate, flanked by three rows of seats and giant video screens on either wall.
Photo : curiouslypersistent on FlickrWe grabbed beer and popcorn and settle into our seats in the first row (thanks to my friend, who made reservations). Judging from the nondescript bento around us, we didn’t miss much by skipping the meal (another 1,000 yen). We’re ready, and not the only ones: the excitement in the room is palpable.
The first floats emerge, giant taiko drums and performers aboard. The drumbeats begin, methodically, hypnotically. Then the show kicks into high gear: the platforms rotate, the elaborate light displays turn on, the risqué outfits revealed. Immediately the world ceases to make sense.
Photo : Ronald Tan on Flickr
Photo : Ronald Tan on FlickrA series of vignettes follow, each over-the-top in its own way. There is a storyline, a common thread, but I can’t for the life of me tell you what it is. We see go-go dancers and giant tarantulas and glittery unicorns. We see robot boxers and neon motorcycles and mechanical sharks.
Photo : Ronald Tan on FlickrThe energy emanating from the stage and audience alike remains high, pulsating through the 90-minute performance (with two short breaks). The show culminates in an epic finale replete with glowsticks and fembots. What they are able to fit in that basement is awe-inspiring: a genuine production marvel.
Photo : Peter Lübeck on FlickrI’m not doing the experience justice, but how does one describe the indescribable? When it is over, we file back up the colorful staircase, and find ourselves back onto the alleyways of Kabukichō. The world seems so different in that moment: darker, quieter.
The Robot Restaurant is sensory overload. It is not real Japan. Instead, it is the Japan tourists imagine in their wildest fantasies. It is the Japan that is crazy and exotic and impossibly foreign, a psychedelic theme park. I can say this now: I’ve never done drugs, but I’ve been to the Robot Restaurant.
Official Website : http://www.shinjuku-robot.com/