Stereotypes about Japan are ubiquitous for a reason. They’re true. Now, as with all stereotypes, they’re not 100% true, nor are they applicable to the whole of society, nor do they say anything about the whole of society. However, the sheer size of the population in Japan – and Tokyo in particular – means that there’s likely some representation of, some truth behind just about every stereotype if you look around hard enough. I mean, there is a giant statue of a robot. There are cosplayers wandering the streets. There are girls who really want to fuck white dudes.
I suppose then the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo embodies a collection of the most exaggerated stereotypes of Japanese pop culture. Scantily clad women, dancers in animal costumes, laser light shows, and of course – robots of all varieties, and plenty thereof. The website alone is almost enough to induce seizures. No, this isn’t what Japan is like. But in some ways, this is the Japan you imagined in your wildest fantasies, your worst nightmares. This is the Japan for tourists, crazy and exotic and impossibly foreign, more theme park than country.
Last week, some 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, curious as to what the fuss was all about. The restaurant / cabaret show had a sparkling 4.5 star average on Tripadvisor, after all. As a frame of reference, I thought about Medieval Times, the corny dinner theater show in the States. No, Medieval Times wasn’t quality entertainment. But it was a blast*: we screamed for our knight, heckled the competition, laughed at our own over-enthusiasm. It was the kind of place where you had to buy in. And that was my mentality for the Robot Restaurant.
*The alcohol helped.
Even the entrance of the restaurant could not seem to help itself. Our senses were immediately attacked. Giant video billboards adorned the hallway, while the storefront resembled some sort of pachinko parlor, only with more screens, more LED lights, just more. It was Xzibit’s wet dream. We were quickly whisked into a tiny elevator that would not be out of place in a disco. Gaudy would be an understatement; the restaurant literally outshone any locale Tokyo might have to offer, Las Vegas for that matter. Early for our show, we headed to the third floor waiting room, already overwhelmed. That was just the beginning.
The elevator opened into a stupefying display. It was as though all of the lights in Shinjuku had managed to be transported into a modest-sized lounge. A rainbow basically vomited everywhere. Chandeliers, mirrors, and video screens glowed, while extravagant chairs – thrones, really – lined the room. I somehow managed to miss the robot band playing smooth jazz until I walked right by the stage. That the vast majority of the crowd waiting appeared to be foreigners did nothing to detract from the experience: this was clearly no longer about authenticity, about Japan, or even Earth.
We waited in the room for a good half hour. I struggled to maintain eye contact with my friends, to keep conversation afloat. Instead, my eyes darted around, my brain struggling to comprehend my surroundings. I kept giggling every so often at the absurdity of it all. The theme of the lounge, of the restaurant, seemed to be robots, dragons, and women: clearly the manifestation of a hyperactive teenage boy’s imagination. Video screens teased us with what was to come. Finally, the announcement came to take our places. To the basement we went, via a garish staircase, surrounded by butterflies, flowers, brightness.
I was taken aback by how small – almost astonishingly so – the stage area was. It was this relatively thin strip of real estate, flanked by three rows of seats (fitting roughly 150 people total) and of course, two giant video screens. Because my friend had the wherewithal to make reservations, our seats were in the splash zone. We grabbed some beer and popcorn and settled in. Judging from the nondescript bento resting in front of our neighbors, we had made the right decision to skip the meal, “restaurant” be damned. The excitement in the room was palpable.
The first floats emerged from the side, giant taiko drums in tow. The performers stared ahead. The drumbeats began, methodically, ritualistically. The whole thing was hypnotic. There was almost a religious quality about it… if it weren’t for the risqué outfits, the elaborate light displays, the moving platforms. The show kicked into full gear, and immediately the world ceased to make sense. I saw go-go dancers and giant tarantulas and flying monkeys. I saw robot boxers and neon motorcycles and glittery unicorns. The show was essentially a series of vignettes, each as over-the-top as the next.
Presumably there was some sort of storyline, some sort of common thread, but I was too busy trying to process all the visuals. I still am. The energy level emanating from performer and audience alike remained high for through the 90 minute show (with two short breaks), culminating in a epic finale replete with glowsticks and fembots. I’m not doing the experience justice, but how does one describe the indescribable? When it was over, we filed back up the colorful staircase, and found ourselves again on the alleyways of Kabukichō. The world seemed so different in that moment, so much darker, so much quieter.
No, I’ve never done drugs, but I’ve been to the Robot Restaurant.