“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.” ~Mae West
Jody takes leave every year for her birthday, and this year was no different. Planning a trip to mainland Japan in celebration, I set our trip’s itinerary to be in Tokyo for her actual birthday after a short stay in Kobe. I must admit, in hindsight, it’s hard to image a better way to rejoice in such a momentous occasion than a visit to Robot Restaurant, what Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown proclaimed as the “the greatest show on earth!”
Well, no quite, but perhaps one of the greatest shows in all of Japan….
The Robot Restaurant, or Robot Cafe, is a short walk from Shinjuku metro station. It should be, however, more accurately branded as a “robot cabaret” because of the music, costumes and dance, although it is TAME by any standard. While bento boxes can be ordered to eat during the show, I (and almost everyone else) recommend a pass and instead purchase a large popcorn and canned “Strong” alcoholic drinks to satiate you in the short-term. In other words, eat dinner in any of the nearby plethora of real, non-robotically-staffed restaurants. Believe it or not, this is one of the most visited entertainment venues in Tokyo – check it out on Trip Advisor to see for yourself!
It’s almost impossible to even begin to describe the show which awaits hundreds of eager visitors and tourists every night in the Shinjuku Kabukicho entertainment district of urban Tokyo. It’s been said that over 1 BILLION yen has gone into the establishment’s development and design. And yes, that’s billion with a Capital “B,” equivalent to roughly $10 million USD, no small sum by any stretch of the imagination. I spare no expense for Jody’s birthday.
While I may not “buy” the validity of this legendary sum (pun intended), there certainly has been a Liberace-inspired sum spent on floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall décor, the pre-show lounge, costumes for the various and multiple performers, and for, of course, the robots themselves.
The show starts in the very corridors of the labyrinth which leads up to the lounge, then down to the basement, then back up to the show’s exit. Seriously, every square inch of each of the narrow passages is covered with paint, decals, and 3-D models of everything ranging from geckos to heavily armed American army women in patriotic bikinis to skulls pierced with what else but unicorn horns…. And what may not be covered with what only an interior decorator on acid would devise is plastered with LED lights and video screens of every type. Being herded tightly through these narrow halls is not for the claustrophobic!
The lounge is, well, one of the gaudiest places I have ever seen. Two levels down from the street, it is equivalent to perhaps the absolutely worst cruise ship bar from the 1980s….combined with transformer-inspired overboard robotic lighting and displays from some dystopic future. The place is decked out with gold swivel chairs shaped like gigantic underwater shells, over-the-top crystal chandeliers, wall-to-wall mirrors with Asian animal motifs of every kind, neon sparkle in every overhead recess, and huge seamless video screens playing snippets of the most ludicrous Japanese video montages that one can conjure.
Hanging out in the pre-show of the lounge is akin, I would think, to a mild trip on hallucinogenic mescaline. No doubt it’s even more sensory overload when jet-lagged or new to Japan. It’s really hard to believe or describe. I imagine the owners providing a small army of 8-year old girls with unlimited crayons, glue sticks, glitter, bedazzles and all the chocolate and caffeine they could consume and let them loose to go absolutely crazy for 48 hours without sleep! The overall theme seems to be “metallic & mirrored,” and the palette is from a migraine-inducing neon rainbow, if there was such a thing! There’s live music played by costumed creatures, while two metallic bikini-clad vocalists were doing their best to sing soft ballads to spectators that should have been decked out in polyester leisure suits…. A drink – one cheap one – comes with your ticket. It’s a dive-bar, longue-lizard vibe that probably can be created most anywhere…but sustain only in Japan.
By the way, according to some accounts, one of the largest collections of Westerners in Tokyo can be found nightly at the Robot Show. Be ready for many more gaijin than locals, but of many different tongues. The place seems to be MUCH more popular with tourists rather than locals, or even visiting Japanese.
Once the show floor is ready for seating, it seems like you go up three or four levels. Entering a very long and narrow show floor that is much smaller than you expect, visitors are directed to squeeze into assigned but well-designed seating, complete with tabletop and cup holders to safely hold drinks and snacks to enjoy during the show. Popcorn, booze and other munchies are sold prior to the performance’s start and during interludes in the action. Oh, and take advantage of the complimentary coat check and lockers at the reception counter located across the street from the show-building itself. The seating is TIGHT, as is most everything else in Tokyo.
The program opens with a huge robot-driven float, topped with bikini-clad troupes of taiko drummers alongside monster-masked characters beating on those iconic traditional Japanese drums. The robot floats are so large and translate so close to floor-side seating that at times we had to duck to allow various robotic appendages to swing safely over our heads. The rhythmic music, costumed characters and robotics result in loud, fun-filled, AWESOME sensory overload!
And then the robots come out to play. Robots of every kind. Some shaped like huge curvaceous women. Others akin to something out of the Transformer movies. Then there are robotic sharks and snakes that battle robotic dinosaurs and futuristic tanks. Some are commanded by fearsome masked male creatures, while others are ridden by Japanese women adorned in risqué fishnets and showgirl glitter, all flashing brightly colored LEDs and lasers. Tron-inspired characters dash about in glowing Tron-like single-wheeled motorized bikes, between robots which seem to groove to the constantly beating drums, while Amazonian war princesses from the future vie for power and control.
In other words, the show descends quickly into utter insanity of a kind to which only pictures can really testify in any believable fashion. There is no linear story-line; don’t waste your limited time trying to understand, and instead just shake your head in amazement.
While the wildly-costumed performers scream and dance and pound on drums mere feet away, you become overwhelmed and confused. Really, there is so much going on, seemingly deconstructed and without continuity that you have to ask yourself: “what the hell is happening here?!” It all seems ridiculously hilarious in true Japanese style, but also impressively pointless. It’s what I would simply call “Tokyo Madness,” and it is deliciously enticing.
At one point a nameplate was brought out to mark “special guests,” and one was put directly in front of Jody. She looked at me and went panicked and pale, I’m sure after instantaneously considering the measurable probability of having to do something “robotic” for her birthday in front of the gathered crowd. But instead, a call-out was made to the birthdays in the crowd, and robot presents were delivered in a metallically colored gift bag. Not wanting to miss a beat of the show, and being somewhat suspect (and even scared) of what we would find inside, we saved opening the bag for later.
Part sci-fi movie and part campy Saturday matinée creature feature, it is one of the wildest but weirdest live shows I have seen. Baffling yet entertaining, this onslaught of stimulation overkill can be one of the more outlandish Far East experiences to have while visiting Japan.
Near the end of the show, colored flashlights are handed out to turn the already confused, drug-induced performance into something resembling an ecstasy-infused rave. While you might be a little dazed at first to know what to do, by the end of the cabaret you’ll be waving your colored stick in encouragement for more!
In the end, the show not so much “works” as it is just “awesome,” in a way that just has to been seen to be truly understood. This sounds like a cop-out, but it is the truth. The interaction of the show with the audience, the performing robots, the epic battles of good versus evil (still not sure who won), combined with the background fantasy fairyland videos and graphics and how good the popcorn actually is makes this comprehensively awesome. Even the over-top-top bathrooms lend to the entirety of the show.
While the tickets weren’t cheap at 6800 yen per person (roughly $65pp), the laughter than Jody and I shared on her birthday due to this show was and will remain priceless. We will be talking about this incredibly fun evening for quite some time to come. Remember, however, to correctly enjoy this bizarrely corny show, one has to be relatively lighthearted. Don’t expect a cohesive story, or story at all. Just expect the unexpected, accept the premise, and engage your sense of humor!
It certainly made for an unforgettable birthday celebration for Jody, one of many we had during our latest Far East Fling (stay tuned for more!).
Happy birthday Jody! I’m already looking for an Amazonian bikini and taiko drum for you for Christmas for use in the production of my very own birthday cabaret in January! You can use Roomba as your robot….