Shinjuku is a district tucked in the northwest corner of Tokyo. Shinjuku houses the world’s busiest train station, the Tokyo Government Office, and Lost in Translation’s Park Hyatt Hotel. A few turns through side streets, and the skyscrapers turn into neon lights. This is Kabukicho, Tokyo’s largest red-light district, home of the infamous Robot Restaurant.
Kabukicho glows in neon and LED. Animated signs and video screens cover every available surface. As people enter and exit buildings, overwhelming noise escapes into the city streets to beckon the sea of humanity outside. From pachinko to sex stores, Kabukicho has whatever you’re looking for.
In the middle of Kabukicho sits a building that adds chrome to the light and sound. The LED and chrome are so bright; it’s like staring into the sun. This is Shinjuku’s Robot Restaurant, the place Anthony Bourdain called the “greatest show in the history of entertainment.”
The Robot Restaurant
The receptionist, speaking no English, takes our tickets. He bows slightly, nods, and points for us to follow the couple in front of us. We cross the street, pass into an ally, and approach a door with a laminated sign reading “Robot Restaurant.” The door leads to a set of stairs that deposit us at an elevator. I wonder what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
The elevator opens into a room that would put Liberace to shame.
Oversized chairs adorned in gold await our presence. The walls are giant LED screens cycling pictures of Japanese girls in costumes. A bar serves overpriced coffee, beer, and sake.
It’s early October, so plastic Halloween pumpkins decorate the tables. One picture scrolling on the walls has girls wearing witch costumes and reads “Happy Halloween” in English. We order from the bar and sit, waiting for something to happen.
A man wearing a Daft Punk helmet walks onto a small stage. He plugs in a bass guitar while a woman dressed like a mirrored ball sits at a piano. Saying nothing, they rock the house.
The opening act, whoever they are, set the tone for the evening to come. Classical piano mixed with blaring electric rock. No words. No pauses. Pure metal.
When the pre-show entertainment ends, we walk down a set of stairs behind the elevator. The stairs are a dizzying mixture of lights, black-lit lizards, and acrylic panels that disorient time and space.
We descend multiple flights, deep into the belly of Kabukicho. The stairs open into the Robot Restaurant’s theater, which is a misnomer. There is no stage, just a line of seats along opposite sides of the room. It’s more stadium than theater.
The couple next to us receive their pre-ordered food, a bento box of nondescript sushi. A western girl dressed like an apathetic student at Hogwarts sells jello shots. A man comes by selling beer. It feels like a sporting event is about to begin.
Another western girl, this one dressed as a circus ringmaster, comes out and explains the rules. Rules? Isn’t this a show? First, when the show starts, no one can leave — not for the bathroom, not for anything. Second, if children would like noise-canceling headphones to protect their ears, they are available. A few children in the front raise their hands.
The third rule is the most important; those in the front row must duck when objects come toward their heads. The ringmaster goes over it twice and then practices by running along the seats holding a sign forcing everyone to duck as she goes by. Safety is of utmost importance at the Robot Restaurant.
The various people selling alcohol and popcorn bow and disappear behind a curtain. The theater goes dark, and the show begins.
The Show: Part 1
Three legs hold up the Robot Restaurant’s show: giant robots, ear-ringing music, and dancing Japanese girls. The show would be very different if one piece were missing. But the three legs in unison create pure magic.
The first two acts of the show present the overall story — if you can call it that. An evil metal race of aliens takes over the world. The girls commune with their animal friends and robot warriors to fight off the invaders. There are explosions, fire, singing, dancing, and overall insanity.
Dancers ride giant dinosaur robots. Lasers draw attention from the opposite side of the theater. Giant screens behind each row of seats show images and movies that help explain the story. We sit there entranced and enthralled with whatever it is we’re witnessing.
During the first intermission, stagehands dressed in black come with carts of metal polls and chains. With a loud thud, they insert the polls into slots in front of each row of seats. After the stragglers return from the bathroom, the stagehands lock us in by connected the polls with the chain. I wonder what happens in the event of a fire?
From our security behind the chains, we watch the heroines defeat the evil aliens. A gorilla rides a swing. A girl rides a giant spider. A giant dinosaur arrives with a rocket in its mouth. With a dramatic dance, the dino rider fires the rocket at the bad guy. A massive pyrotechnic explosion occurs right there on the stage, just feet from the chairs. This is why they chained us in! The show pure insanity for just ¥7000 ($70) a ticket.
The Show: Part 2
After another intermission where the stagehands clear the metal chains while Hogwarts girl peddles more jello shots, the Robot Restaurant’s Halloween special begins. The third act starts with an amazing Jabberwocky dance team that appears in a wash of LED and disappears into total darkness, timed with the music. They absolutely wow the crowd while moonwalking in strobed lights and lasers.
The lights come back up, and the Jabberwocky’s are replaced by the dancing girls. They’re all in bright, Halloween-themed costumes. The Monster Mash blares through the speakers while the girls throw candy into the stands. Except it wasn’t candy. During the next intermission, I try it and discover it’s a Halloween-themed pork rind. Strange.
The final act is a Brazilian Carnaval, complete with elaborate costumes and fifteen-foot-tall dancing robots, just like you’d find on the streets of a futuristic Rio. There is so much going on that I cannot possibly take it all in. During the parade of entertainment, a techno-version of Fury Road’s war march moves through the theater. They even have a gorilla suspended by bungee-cords whaling on a guitar. It may have even been shooting flames.
After the show ends, we sit there dumbfounded. Amid a haze of smoke and delirium, we’re left attempting to process what we saw. Dazed, we’re funneled up the stairs in a euphoric queue. Busted hearing. Eyes twitching from constant flashing lights.
I don’t know what I just saw, but I know that it was amazing. Anthony Bourdain was right; the Robot Restaurant is the single greatest show in the history of entertainment.