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Finding fractured reality in Japan’s completely gonzo robot cabaret bar
Robots. Horse masks. The heart of Japan?
Tokyo’s Kabukicho neighborhood is a fitting location for the Robot Restaurant. Less culinary spread and more a feast for the eyes and ears, this mixed-media smorgasbord is a digital version of the sweeping elaborations of one of Japan’s most revered styles of theater.
The neighborhood itself claims roots steeped in the drama of Kabuki and yet, as a modern-day red light district, its theatrics offer less high art and more tourist traps. Vertical billboards pop and sizzle with promises of sin, albeit a fairly light version. This robot cabaret was no different.
Nestled on a cramped street in a serpentine building crafted out of the dreams of an E3 newbie, the Robot Restaurant is a decadent blend of pristine lighting refracted through the gaudiest of chandeliers, casting refractions among the LEDs and mirrors that render its waiting-room quality anything but sterile. A robot band made of actual humans clad in Daft Punk-esque outfits played soul—think Adele and Stevie Wonder—as I sipped my complimentary highball. (Highballs in Japan, by the way, come from a can, and are comically mild compared to the drink enjoyed by the Don Drapers of the world.)
Entering the Robot Restaurant felt like a strange reprieve from the inherent chaos of the city as well as perhaps the most gaijin thing I’d done all trip—and I’d gone to Tokyo’s lone Taco Bell beforehand. English was spoken more than any other language, though this two-plus-year-old enterprise has most certainly caught the attention of locals. The reported $1.1 million price tag behind its cutting-edge production is enough to grab anyone’s attention, as is the unbridled artifice of such a show.
I couldn’t quite tell if managing director Namie Osawa was catering to her own eccentricities or quietly pandering to a primarily foreign crowd. That distinction would only grow more opaque as I made my way down to the runway of a performance space flanked by old school theater seats—and with enough automation up above to warrant a fairly formidable grid system to keep it all together. Even the journey underground was an adventure, filled with tattoo art and flashing lights.
Cell phone use was strongly discouraged, as each robot is controlled via Wi-Fi signal. Stagehands raced between the robots with RC controllers as larger floats glided across the black matte floor, cutting dangerously close to patrons sitting in the first row—myself included. I’d lucked into getting seat number 69 (nice!) and received a stern warning about jutting my head away from the robots as they pivoted through, all while workers hawked popcorn and tried to match bento boxes to seats before the grand performance got underway.
Once the show had started, there was little explanation of what was going on. Taiko drummers set the scene, because why the hell not? Japanese goblins jammed guitars and basses between demons wielding parasols as aggressive J-Pop pumped through speakers. This was only the beginning.
A few Japanese businessmen were stationed across from me, and hot damn, were they having a ball vying for the title of Most Boisterous Attendees. It’s fairly easy to let loose in a place that boasts renegade Jabbawockeez as intermission entertainment, though. The faux dance crew undulated in a sea of lasers to a Michael Jackson medley before the lights came up and those same popcorn and food vendors returned.
The strongest narrative thread came from a story told immediately following the actual break (which provided I could refill my highball and take in my surroundings afresh). What I think transpired and what actually did may have been a chaotic blend of my jet-lagged delirium and a relentless show hellbent on using Mad Libs as their screenplay template. Some semblance of a forest was in danger, and yet sea creatures dominated a large chunk of the battles.
A robotic shark waggled its tail with glee as a mermaid came to blows with the likes of giant serpents and moths. At one point, a chain barrier was installed to contain the carnage and recent addition of pyrotechnics. An enemy got trapped in the mouth of a snake, and a dinosaur somehow entered the fight. The businessmen across from me went wild as sparks emitted from the snout of a moth carrying a gorilla, defeating a pincered bug set precariously atop tank tread legs.
The grand finale: a fever dream of sorts that finally showed the breadth (and relative bread and butter) of the robot cabaret. All performers were announced with accompanying video footage after massive glow sticks had been handed out to delirious audience members still trying to wrap their heads around a 90-minute spectacle that was relentless at worst and somehow captured the wabi-sabi ethos of a trip to Tokyo.
A robot’s head fell off during the final procession, and a nonplussed dancer clad in multicolor headdress and flamenco onesie was forced to carry the battered skull. A man in a horse mask whipped the accompanying carrot dangling from a string above his body so violently that it swung around and hit him in the face. Girls waltzing up to tables and commandeering robots demanded enthusiasm from a weary crowd without rhyme or reason as rampant onomatopoeias flickered across the same screen that had welcomed the now dumbstruck audience.
Needless to say, I drank a lot of whiskey following the celebratory salute from a gladiator riding a disco robot horse. I could wax poetic about the Yamazaki plenty. There may never be an effective way to distill just what the hell the Robot Restaurant was meant to be or how it has managed stayed so popular despite the expensive-even-for-Japan price of admission.
Yet it’s these idiosyncrasies that make the experience entirely worthwhile. It’s not every day you get stuck in the weirdest game-show-turned-pachinko-machine-meets-Akihabara on a chilly winter night in the heart of the city district where used panties are sold.
Photo via April Siese
A former Weekend Editor at the Daily Dot, April Siese's reporting covers everything from technology and politics to web culture and humor. Her work has been published by Bustle, Uproxx, Death and Taxes, Rolling Stone, the Daily Beast, Thrillist, Atlas Obscura, and others. Siese joined Quartz in December 2016.