Domo Arigato Restaurant Roboto!
Chris Arkenberg visits an establishment where pop culture and history merge into a light show of singular magnificence.
I think it was the disco panda, charging into a clutch of alien invaders, while riding an enormous shaggy cow. That's when my brain melted like butter, no longer able to sustain the thermodynamic struggle against the frying pan. A frying pan dusted with rainbow LED's, wearing bedazzled hot pants, and painted by a hundred neon lasers. Like a sun-blasted Japanese spaghetti western refracted through Tron and Blade Runner.
That’s not to undersell the scantily clad cavewomen, riding a giant spider, or the disco Cylon on roller-skates, or even the mermaid riding the great white shark eating an alien invader. Each in their own glorious way, and all together with so much more, rendered complete the steady, inescapable liquefaction of my mind tank. This is the neutron star of Japanisms buried below the light canyons of Shinjuku. This is Robot Restaurant.
Through the narrow Kabukicho alleyways of Shinjuku, packed with the masses, lined with riotous pachinko arcades and the constant flicker-flash of light shifting the heuristics relentlessly, the audacity of Robot Restaurant barely stands out. You'd be forgiven for missing the signs, or mistaking the line out the door for one of many searching to uncover a deeper part of Tokyo, darker and more occulted than the Light Brite of the streets.
The entrance is covered - literally, every inch - in rainbow walls of shifting pixels, reflective tiles, gold-veined marble, LED bulb arrays, dangling crystal chandeliers, and flickering video screens. After revealing our tickets, my wife and I begin the descent down several flights of stairs into the Kabukicho underworld. Like the graphical volume of the entryway, every surface of the stairwell from floor to ceiling is covered in loud and inescapable details. Glossy plastic sheets of bright floral patterns and butterflies map to the walls with sculptures of green and yellow lizards crawling across them, chromed skulls bulging out, and angry tigers wrapped in hissing cobras. The ceilings convulse with mirrored bulbs that reflect and warp it all into thousands of alter-worlds. The steps become rainbow arrays of lights as the wall treatments shift to plastic Americana: tanks charging across dusty plains; women wearing USA bikinis and Iron Cross helmets holding M-16’s; and soaring B-29 bombers like the ones that left cinders at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Is it just a strange, hallucinatory bricolage lost in translation? Or is there some deeper logic, some important story weaving its way through this kaleidoscope?
At the bottom of the psychedelic stairwell, about 4 stories underground, Robot Restaurant occupies a basement maybe 50 feet across and 100 feet long, lined on each lengthwise side with bleachers about 4 rows deep. The walls behind the seats are LED screens painted with animations. This leaves a central aisle about 20 feet wide and running 60 feet long between garage door-sized panels at each end. The ceiling is densely hung with articulated trusses, an assortment of stage riggings, and a continuous track circling the space above the seats. All manner of lights and lasers and accessories are attached in some inscrutable logic. It's said that the investors spent $10 million dollars to create this. It shows.
An important note lost on some reviewers: aside from the name, Robot Restaurant is not meant to be an actual restaurant. A bento box of questionable food suggests less of the intention to nourish than of some esoteric municipal requirement that food be served whenever dancers are employed to cavort with robots.
The house lights dim and beats pound through the sound system, lasers and colored lighting flares up to dress the set. At each end of the floor, garage doors open, emitting two motorized set pieces - gloriously colored mobile stages that cruise out across the floor. Young athletic women in white bikinis with long white wigs pound fat taiko drums wrapped in rainbow rope lights. Seven to a stage, they bang out the rhythms in unison, their movements tightly choreographed and professional. White haired demons in kimonos menace the crowd. Above us hang rows of traditional Japanese tea lights in rainbow hues moving along the ceiling track. Bright neon kanji and historic symbols dance across the room. A long, brilliantly-colored dragon snakes its way through the tempest, dancing along the backs of black-clad figures, running to give it life. Then the scene clears.
The garage doors are now hung with red flags and white crosses, like old images of the Crusades. The video walls behind the seats show battalions of majorettes marching across open fields beset by explosions and fire. Hungry to assert some meaning, we seize upon a narrative. Traditional Japan - girls playing taiko drums for demons and dragons - is faced with the rise of the West. We imagine the show will unfold by walking through the ages and interpreting Asia’s role in global civilization. But this is Japan; what you think you know is almost always nowhere near what's actually going on.
From the shadows come circular metallic stages rolling out on pairs of shiny robot feet like Ironman’s dancing shoes. Atop one of the stages stand four young women in shaggy pink leggings and bikinis, wearing rabbit ears and holding snare drums at their waists, drumsticks in hand. Atop the other robot foot stage, notable for its stripper pole, a blond in bikini begins to dance, wrapping herself around the pole in difficult contortions. The sound system kicks up with “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. Two other stage platforms roll out with full drum sets played by two more bunnies. Yet more bunnies take to the floor pounding large jamboree drums hung vertically in front of them. It’s all cute and silly and a fair bit sexy but the level of performance by these young women is indeed impressive - and this is the third set of the night. But so much for our theory of historical remix, right? Or maybe the remix is so densely layered and recursive that it’s beyond our comprehension.
Something about Tokyo demands a greater information density than many other cities. You see it in the stores, in media, and stretched across the buildings. Maybe my mind just isn’t tuned enough to decode the hum.
The scene darkens again and the bunny majorettes abate. What appear to be pre-historic tribal types are now bounding around the room in masks and furs and waving pointed sticks like they do. Before we know it, demonic techno samurai run them down with industrialized Segways, like GWAR-meets-Burning Man-meets-Deathrace 3000. Seriously. The music keens between dubstep and industrial machine music as Tokyo GWAR celebrates their might while a small gang of animals dressed in disco gym suits pry at the garage doors.
And then it happens.
With a blast, the doors fly open and a cow charges out with a panda in a jumpsuit riding it straight into the scrum of alien invaders. It's gone as quickly as it came. My jaw has now reached the maximal point of gapedness, like an ovoraptor unhinging to eat whole the hyper-dimensional disco ball at the end of time. In our vacation photos there's a great picture taken by my dear wife that captures the exact moment my face slid off my skull into a pool of neon and flesh, a seized combination of WTF and OMG. And it’s one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve ever had.
The melee continues. The alien invaders must be stopped. Who better to put up the good fight than the always-smiling Japanese girls? Wearing heels and stockings under fluffy red-white-and-blue tutu's, armed with Captain America shields and swinging various forms of mace and flail, the women counter the alien invaders with gusto. Alas, their efforts fall short as the invaders beat them down. Send in the giant spider! Two women ride in on a dark mechanized arachnid, eyes glowing red, articulating an octet of creepy limbs across a10 foot span. They take out a few of the remaining invaders and at some point there are also dinosaurs, as one would obviously expect. But the alien boss still stands. The only thing that can possibly save us is a mermaid riding a 15-foot great white shark! Her high-pitched screeching and katerwauling no doubt tells some legendary tale of great victory as the mobile shark finds its prey and begins to bite down repeatedly – giant shark teeth and everything! Red in tooth and eyes and chomping on the squirming alien boss until he's fully digested. Lasers and smoke and wild beats and great cheering attends the momentous occasion. I’m pretty much crying with joy and astonishment.
Like the steady stream gently but firmly wearing down the stone, my mind has been smoothed to a grain of sand tumbling blissfully in the flow. The show continues relentlessly, getting more disco-y and celebratory and future robot-y. Daft Punk on ridiculous amounts of good acid. Cylons on roller skates with rainbow afro wigs, silver robots riding neon monowheels, others with chromed-out Segways instead of legs. 9 foot tall silver robots dance while blinky Cylon DJ's bang the decks. Fricken laser beams everywhere, bouncing off all those shiny robot surfaces with every LED cluster and rope light in the place. Everyone in the crowd is waving colored light wands in time with the beat, rainbows going holographic and omnipresent. Gangnam Style is pounding through the sound system now while the whole gyrating blinky silver robot cast gets seriously down and funky. It all blurs and teeters until all those smiling girls are wrapped in durian fruit bikinis, dancing on a neon tank like Tron-meets-Battlezone while modified Death Guild ATV's and motorcycles tear around the floor spewing a choking exhaust into this tiny basement.
From the sudden darkness a B-29 bomber flies in, hung from the dark rigging, wrapped in rainbow rope lights from nose to tail, neon props in full rotation. LED seats swing from the wings with girls in reflective chaps and bikinis, waving and smiling. Surely this is some statement about WW2, right? The bomber collides with the crazy tank of light in a sea of thighs and breasts and smiles and shiny eyes and the rainbow spectrum of photons bouncing around the basement into every rod and cone standing at firm attention. More machines and women move in patterns across the floor, high-tempo techno-pop pumping and throbbing, lasers flailing wildly as the video walls vainly dance and caper, almost lost in the brilliance of the floorshow.
This is the Japanese discipline of refinement at the bleeding white-hot edge of entertainment. For eroticized robot floorshows. On eleven. With fricken lasers. It’s glitzy, a little clunky, and a bit retro as if Burning Man finally gave in and merged with Las Vegas. I find it even more beautiful for the noticeable challenge of dragging the tech forward out of the long economic malaise that’s plagued Japan for over 20 years. But there’s no mistaking a supreme level of mastery at play here, at once both brilliant and empty, like a delicate and deliberate arrangement of deeply-hallucinogenic radioactive flowers. It’s a J-pop collage of kinetic mayhem playing out as techno dinner theater, perhaps telling some alternate mythology of a Tolkienized Asia. Or maybe it’s a crazy kabuki music video signaling back from a future-Japan mysteriously lacking cats. Amidst the deluge, there’s important information in what isn’t shown. If nothing else, Robot Restaurant is an exceptional realization of a singular vision, celebrating Japanese audacity and creativity.
From out of the blanching end-of-show lights, we climb the stairs in a daze, back up the psychedelic kaleidoscope to the chilled winter night of Kabukicho, Shinjuku - so bright and shiny and organic - looking for information in the gaps, over beers and grilled meats and Japanese whisky, lost in translation more than ever but feeling warm and safe and shiny in Tokyo.
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