A crazy night at Tokyo's robot restaurant

Belinda Luksic gets front-row seats to the craziness that is Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant

party with a person wearing a suit that has neon lights
  • Belinda Luksic
  • June 2018

Four flights of mirrored steps and walls luridly backlit with florid designs of butterflies, goddess girls and 3D reptiles greet you on arrival at Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant. It’s a precursor of what awaits in the basement of this tiny venue on the outskirts of Shinjuku’s red-light district.

Launched in July 2012 at a cost of 10 billion Japanese yen (roughly AUD $113 million), Robot Restaurant pays tribute to all that’s weird and wonderful about Japan. Manga characters, ninjas, pandas, samurais, geishas, pyrotechnics, laser lights, giant floats, techno music and animatronics come together in a 90-minute show. It’s over the top, loud, outrageously fun and possibly the most entertaining cabaret show you’re ever likely to see.

The restaurant itself isn’t much to look at: a narrow rectangular space dominated by two walls of video screens and low-rise tiered seating that is at turns oddly reminiscent of a school gym, a telethon and a Japanese game show. Calling it a restaurant is also a stretch. It’s more akin to being at an American ball game. Retro carts with freshly made popcorn and fairy floss are wheeled out at intervals along with sake, beer and soft drink. There is sushi too, but one look at the four cup holders in the cafeteria-style metal trays affixed to the seats and it’s clear food isn’t the focus here.

Just as well too. It’s hard to keep your mouth shut with so much going on so close. Whiplash is a distinct possibility, sensory overload too. A frenetic drum-off between rock chicks wearing rainbow mullets and stick-wielding samurai on a taiko (traditional drum) float festooned in neon lights is followed closely by a guitar-strumming headlamp-eyed swamp monster, acrobatic dancing girls, geishas and a graceful red Chinese dragon.

There’s barely enough room for them all, let alone time to digest what’s going on, before they disappear into the wings to be replaced by a ghostly samurai war march, a creepy masked clown dance and a cool Tron light suit hip hop routine to a Michael Jackson medley.

By the time the main act is underway, one thing is certain - if there is such a thing as Japanese kitsch, Robot Restaurant has it in droves. It’s in the kawaii (cute) dancing girls and even cuter island robot invasion narrative told via the big screen, the enthusiastic English-speaking voiceovers (of which there are many) and the futuristic battle between cheering girls astride giant animals and swaggering robots riding laser-shooting, smoke-spewing, metal beasts.

As the battle draws to a close and the robots flail and die in the most fantastic ways – one in the macramé cobweb of a giant spider, another carted away in the mouth of a shark - you’re left cheering and laughing at how far this schtick is willing to go. It’s unabashedly, wonderfully cheesy.

Even the long-winded, slow-moving parade at the end – an exercise, it seems, in how many cast members and floats can cram into a really tiny space that’s not a Tokyo train carriage at peak hour – isn’t enough to dampen the fun.