The Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku has now been on the Tokyo scene for around a year (it celebrates its birthday in July); we thought we’d take a look and see how things have been working out…
There aren’t robot waiters, but there are robot-driving dancers, bikini-clad taiko drummers and ninja-masked stagehands and when you look up from your bento it won’t be the surroundings of any other novelty ‘restaurant’ you’ll find in town, but a non-stop spectacle of a show that has to be seen to be believed.
The Robot Restaurant – can you possibly have avoided hearing about it/seeing the posters/the trucks with ten-foot robots that might make Madonna jealous driving around central Tokyo these last few months? – is about the furthest from the eating-focused establishment its name might suggest, and it is the kind of place where you have to leave your inhibitions at the door.
“The experience, a one hour show barely punctuated by anything less than the extraordinary, doesn’t fit into the slightly trite ‘only in Japan’ category – this is surely all only possible in Kabukicho.”
It’s perhaps no major surprise that the place will already be more than familiar to most of you – even if you haven’t often left your house over the last year you will have heard friends talking about the place, read about it in one of any number of blogs and news sites that have picked it up, watched clips on TV or even seen a snippet of a recent Tokyo-filmed music video from the rock band Muse, which featured the place heavily.
We visited to find out a little more about how things are going after a year and found the still unique place seemingly thriving. The experience, a one hour show barely punctuated by anything less than the extraordinary, doesn’t fit into the slightly trite ‘only in Japan’ category, nor even would this be an ‘only in Tokyo’ experience – this is surely all only possible in Kabukicho.
The Robot Restaurant Concept
As far as efforts to help Japan’s recovery post-earthquake, a Robot themed cabaret-restaurant in a Tokyo entertainment district is pretty far fetched in conception, but that is one of the reasons the idea supposedly came into fruition.
Whether or not the aim “to make people more genki” was motivated by society’s malaise is not entirely clear, but there are certainly a lot of gaping jaws and happy faces around the place when we arrive – it’s hard to imagine the brainstorming session when the idea was being formed but on first impressions things seem to be working out quite well.
The whole thing cost about $10 million, and it shows, though that figure (which is emblazoned on Hummers that drive around Tokyo inviting you) should perhaps be no surprise. Land in the centre of Kabukicho was procured, previous premises were demolished (small bars and a parking lot) and then all manner of technology and décor was installed, not to mention staff hired.
Around 30 full-time dancers, each aged in the showbiz golden zone of between 19 and 30 years old nabbed what was apparently a rather sought-after job – just one or two are hired from every ten who reach the audition stage. They each earn a comparatively high wage (staff mentioned a figure in the region of ¥500,000/month) that sets them apart from some who you might traditionally expect to be working in the area, particularly for something that, however much you might think otherwise, is basically just good clean fun.
Around 12,000 bulbs line the walls of the waiting room, giving a glaring taste of what is to come and leading you through and down to the show area. There you’ll sit and just take it all in. The show is split into four sections, each having developed in scale and tightness (responding to feedback – it is worth going again if you’ve been already) and each something that reading about may potentially spoil – look away now if you think that’s true!
“You might at times feel as if you are watching the end level boss battle your character in a long-forgotten console game – after you’ve tapped in the Konami code, of course…”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the whole experience is how much fun it all is the second (or third…) time around – watching the reactions of others in the crowd is as fun as experiencing events for yourself at times. That crowd, made up of couples, groups of both men and women, a handful of foreign visitors and some who seem like regulars is diverse, but everyone seems happy to go along for the ride.
Things have grown over the year and a bit since it opened, with seating that flanks the action now four-tier rather than the initial two and even more LED screens installed to show live action movies that have been produced to complement a ‘story’ element that helps things make slightly more sense.
There are more than 200 of the seemingly permanently colorful 44-inch monitors that surround the stage area, including on the ceiling. We’d have no complaints about the somehow random aspect of what eventually comes next every time we feel like you’ve had enough shocks, but self-produced movies with the girls dancing in the desert or setting the scene for ‘battle’ do help pass the time…
It should be easy to write about the show at the Robot Restaurant. There are robots, there are girls, there are taiko drums, there is a giant mechanical armadillo (we think that’s what it was!) that does battle with a Kung-fu panda lookalike and there are some perhaps Daft Punk-inspired figures (we do wonder if any royalties changed hands) who skate around the place on Segways dodging lasers and pumping up the crowd with their glowsticks.
You’ll perhaps recognize aspects of cult toys or icons of your youth in much of what the costume and character designers have come up with and while it references all that you might at times feel as if you are watching the end level boss battle your character in a long-forgotten console game – after you’ve tapped in the Konami code, of course… Often, though, it is simply a manic, inhibition-zapping festival of ‘what on earth were they thinking?’
It’s hard to think of something ‘serious’ and intelligent to say about the place. But we enjoyed it and would probably be back: we’d most likely go with friends visiting from overseas, hoping to give them that other-worldy Tokyo feeling many long-term residents have perhaps forgotten, and we would again be reminded of the time we were also ‘fresh off the boat’ types. Life during and after a visit to the Robot Restaurant does feel a little less serious for a while – and that’s something we’re sure everyone can get down with.
Weekender’s Robot Restaurant Experience:
Before we left the office we had a few chats about the place (one amongst our number had been before) and talked of the ‘five million lightbulbs’ and $100m spent. After we left, we realized we’d not been entirely duped by exaggerations and were glad to have got to the roots of where the rumours came from. Here are a few choice first impressions:
“A concept that is brilliant in its simplicity. Robots and dancing girls. What’s not to like?”
“It was a little boy’s dream come true kind of experience: robots, guns and girls, like the front cover of a sci-fi novel, but real.”
“You can experience pretty much all things “Japanese” in one place – in one hour – and it will shock you!”
The Robot Restaurant website: www.shinjuku-robot.com
Advance reservations are highly recommended.