The Robot Restaurant is one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist attractions, a show that combines robots, dragons, ninjas, blue-haired dancers, drums, a whole lot of neon lights, and really loud music.
It’s the most bizarre show we’ve ever seen.
Here are Simon’s notes from our experience:
17:25: We are ushered in past two giant robot statues that you can climb up and sit in into a bright hallway covered in shiny, reflective surfaces, like how you might design a nightclub if you’ve never been to one but just heard about them from a friend of a friend.
We are sent up an elevator into a holding area. A band with a pretty Japanese singer and a pianist and bassist (both dressed in robot suits) are playing Disney show tunes.
This is the least notable thing about this room.
It’s like a glitter factory exploded and the explosion was so loud and violent that it caused a unicorn to vomit rainbows all over the walls. This projectile rainbow vomit struck the lighting technician and he lurched forward in disgust onto the brightness dial, turning the various coloured lights up to eleven where it got stuck and, despite their best efforts, they have never been able to reduce the retina-burning levels of discordant electromagnetic waveforms.
There is a disco ball.
There is also a bar. I head there first.
17:46: The nausea that I feel from just sitting here is building into a crescendo. The last tattered remnants of my aesthetic sensibilities are slipping away. Colour means nothing anymore.
17:50: Much to my relief, we are led into what feels like a small airport hanger which is lined on both sides by tiered seating areas, as if we’re about to review our military arsenal. We have front row centre seats.
The children get hearing protectors to cover their ears. We don’t get these.
18:08: There are no words to describe what I am seeing.
18:16: I should probably try, though, seeing as it’s my job and everything.
The music is some loud J-pop electro-weirdness that bounces around the room. The performers come out dressed as dragons and ninja warriors and futuristic neon assassins and give their all to unimpressed Western faces who were perhaps expecting something different than what the gaudy, flashing, primary-colour soaked sign outside promised.
The sets are falling apart, the costumes are battered and worn, the “robots” themselves are remote controlled monstrosities, and they don’t even bother to hide the pilots, who follow them around dressed in black with their faces covered in sheer fabric. We can totally see the handheld remotes.
But the dancers and musicians (there are a lot of drums) have an energy that could power Tokyo for a week and already I can feel it affecting me.
18:25: The first of many interludes, where one is given a chance to pat down the hair that was blown back and maybe buy another beer or some popcorn (which, to be fair, is reasonably priced).
Then they bring out the barriers.
Probably don’t lean forward, we on the front row are told.
18:36: We are deep into a story that is basically Ferngully meets Pacific Rim except the forest people have these giant dragons that they’re riding to fight the cackling robot pilots. The screens behind the seating on both sides flash up images of forests and, if it wasn’t for the fact that one of the displays opposite us is broken, you could almost imagine yourself actually there in the middle of the action.
18:38: Good grief that mini gun was loud.
19:02: The intervals are many and often. More drinks and snacks!
19:13: A guitarist covered in feathers is attached by ropes to the front of a truck leading a band of brightly dressed musicians. It’s the Care Bears meets Mad Max Fury Road.
19:18: I am now un-ironically doing the actions to YMCA with a big grin on my face while feathered dancers and musicians atop mobile stages implore us with everything they have to let go of the tattered remnants of our self-respect. I do so willingly.
19:25: We have been unceremoniously kicked out of a side entrance as they hastily prepare for the next show and we are looking for ramen and attempting to make sense of what we have just witnessed.
Having your pretensions brutally stripped from you like this leaves you in a state of childlike wonder. This is a glorious nightmare of genius or madness whose sets and costumes are the bastard children of H.R. Geiger and Hanna Barbera and the performers throw themselves into it in a way that transcends irony.
I tried to keep my distance but the entire show is designed to wear down any semblance of taste until you are clapping and laughing along to whatever neon coloured, badly-costumed insanity they bring out next and, honestly, it is quite wonderful at the time even if, afterwards, you feel like you’ve indulged in something a little bit shameful.
I desperately wanted to think I was better than this, but the wretched crimes against art and artistry transcend their hellish origins with the conviction and enthusiasm that the dancers and drummers bring to it and pummel you with the pure exuberant joy of it all until the only thing that’s worth laughing at are the people who paid ¥8000 to sit there with their arms folded.
There is no shame here, sir. Or, rather, there is so much shame but seeing as we’re all in it together, we may as well clap and sing along and feel good about it for the moment.
The big question is: should you pay money to see this? If the thought of seeing Haribo candy come to life except those candy pieces are robots and they can inject sugar directly into your veins at any moment appeals to you, then yes.
Like any LSD experience, what you get out of it is almost entirely to do with your mental state. It’s not good in a New York Times Theatre Review sense of the word but, if you let go and let God, you may find yourself reaching a new plane of understanding and aesthetic appreciation for the sheer maniacal exuberance of it all.
Human beings are amazing and weird.
Robot Restaurant Tips
- Do not buy tickets direct and pay full price (¥8000). You can get up to 38% off by booking online with sites like Voyagin and just show your e-ticket to get in.
- The show runs every day at 4 pm, 5.55 pm, 7.50 pm, and 9.45 pm and lasts about 90 minutes with frequent breaks. You are supposed to arrive 30 minutes in advance.
- Voyagin has the best deals on the earliest show at ¥5,399 ($48) including a drink (you’ll need it) and photo-op with the robots.
- Despite the name, The Robot Restaurant is not a restaurant, and although you can order sushi bento boxes, they are supposed to be terrible. Eat in one of the many excellent restaurants in Shinjuku instead (we recommend Zen for okonomiyaki, one of the best vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Tokyo).
- Don’t expect many robots—again, despite the name, they aren’t the main focus of the show.
- The Robot Restaurant is located in the Kabukicho entertainment and red light district about a 10-minute walk from Shinjuku Station. This is Japan, though, so it’s very safe.
Many thanks to Voyagin who provided us with complimentary tickets to the Robot Restaurant.
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