Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Roaming Around Japan: Robot Restaurant

English language pamphlet
I’ve previously talked about Shinjuku, one of my favourite places to stay when I go to Tokyo because the fact it’s so central and also due to the amount electrical, music and department chain stores. The other unavoidable part of Shinjuku is the area’s notorious red light district; Kabukicho. While English speaking Youtubers seem to paint the area as the dodgiest place on the planet, in truth it is probably the most benign red light district in the world. I suspect the red light districts in the countries of origin of those Youtubers are from are far, far more dangerous than Kabukicho at its worst. I still find it bizarre that touts will immediately leave you alone if you tell them “No thank you” to their Engrishy “Japanese girl? Sex?”. They don’t put up any fight at all. I mean, you probably should proceed with caution if venturing to any of the bars in the area (you’ll have a more satisfying experience at Golden Gai, only short walk down the road if you’re interested in a decent bar) but generally it’s a safe area.

In recent years there has been a push to make the area safe and even family friendly. The Hotel Gracery and Toho Cinema which features a life sized Godzilla head and claw sticking out of the building began operation in 2015, which brought in crowds not necessarily there for the adult entertainment. Prior to that, the infamous Robot Restaurant began trading in July 2012. While some of the reviews on holiday sites from some western patrons bizarrely focus on the restaurant aspect of the establishment, it’s patiently obvious the main (and only) drawcard is the utterly absurd and over the top cabaret show with robots, showgirls and a neon cover tank.

A lot of the early western commentary on the Robot Restaurant speculated that was run by local Yakuza or it was set up as money laundering outfit due to the alleged exorbitant start-up cost of ¥10 billion yen (about $100 million). Even now there is scant information written in English about the origins and owner of the place. But a cursory search brings up the real owner of the Robot Restaurant; Keiichi Morishita, who owns the relatively unknown company (in the west at least), Shinjuku Soft. Morishita made his fortune from two very Japanese sex industry niches; first, Telephone Clubs where customers would come in to a private room in the club where they would receive a call from a woman and proceed to have phone sex or arrange a liaison at a local love motel, and secondly Koshitsu Video stores. Meaning “private room video”, these are places where you can rent a porn video, go into a private room and, ahem, do your business. They can be found everywhere in urban Japan and are easy to spot (in fact one of Shinjuku Soft’s Koshitsu Video stores is right next to the Robot Restaurant).

Things have changed a lot with the Robot Restaurant over the last five years, including the show itself, but I’ll be giving you my experience of the show when I went to it in March 2013. Back then you either had to get a ticket from the box office in Kabukicho or ring up and book. I stupidly rang up. I knew little in the way of Japanese and winged it. Somehow I managed to book a session in the early evening which cost me ¥4,000 (currently ¥8,000 plus an additional ¥1,000 for a meal). They ring you about an hour before the show starts to make sure you’re coming and lay down the ground rules; no sunglasses, no tattoos, no wigs and no cosplay (essentially they didn’t want people to hide their identity for some reason).



Once you arrive, a dinosaur and two robots great you at the front as well as a chatty English speaking spruiker who’s used to tourists. The doorman looks like a freaking yakuza, but seemed friendly enough. You are ushered to the payment area and pay up where they also have lockers for your belongings.


As you can see, the waiting room is really tastefully done and understated with an overabundance of chrome, LEDs, neon and video screens covering all the walls, the floor and ceiling assaulting your senses. You are given a choice of menu set A or B convenience store-like bento boxes and a bottle of green tea. Alcohol is extra. After about half an hour wait you are guided down a set of stairs crammed with LEDs and into the performance area.

In the performance area, seating is either side with LEDs, neon and large banks of TV screens behind the audience’s seats.  On either side of the stage is a large lantern with dragons, peacoks and snake characters, similar to ones you’d see at a tanabata festival, as well as a couple of the “fembots”. These large rideable robots with controllable facial expressions and breasts (yes, the breasts move) are controlled by two of the dancers. They’ll make a prominent appearance later. They’re also used as promotional items and can often been seen on a flatbed truck roaming around Shinjuku advertising the Robot Restaurant. Though it is currently considered as a gaudy entertainment for foreign tourists, when I went the audience was mostly Japanese; a few salary men, some who looked quite bored, a group of elderly men who sat in front of me and loved every minute of it, and numerous couples or small groups of people. Including myself, three western tourists were there; some guy who came with a Japanese friend and a woman in her twenties who came by herself.



The entertainment opens with the Josen Drum and Dance segment. From what I understand Josen are a dance group specially formed for the restaurant. I think Josen means “woman warrior” or words to that effect, and that theme is pretty prevalent throughout the night. Compared with the following segments, this section is pretty tame with lots of dancing and banging on wadaiko (traditional Japanese drums). At one point there’s a flag waved about with “Woman Warrior” written on it. That flag makes several appearances and the concept is a prominent feature during the evening. Who knew women warriors wore such skimpy clothing?

Next was a brass band routine with the dancers wearing skimpy clothing (bit of a theme during the evening) with the entire routine an obvious nod to Alex Gaudino’s 2007 music video “Destination Calabria”;


Of note is the Robot Restaurant’s use of Kuroko during routine changes. These are stagehands which are normally seen in in traditional Japanese theatre, who dress all in black with a face covering. They really amused a couple sitting next to me Unfortunately as the stage was really dark I could not get a really good photo of any of the Kuroko. During set ups for following routines, video will occasionally play on the video screens. One video segment included some of the dancers out on an expensive looking cruiser soaking up the sun out on Tokyo bay. Next was the insanity laden robot battle, which began with a dinosaur breaking through a wooden gate. This instantly evolved (or devolved) into a fight with a robot;


Then a Kung Fu Panda-esqe guy in a panda suit came to do battle with the robots;


Next up, why not a sort of female Captain America (apparently called Cutey Honey according the accompanying graphic on the video screens) with a shield, hammer and flail?;


And another robot joins in and finally two cave girls on a dinosaur enter;


The cave girls are finally declared winners by the emcee. Unfortunately the robot dinosaur conked out as it left the arena and was unceremoniously pushed and dragged offstage much to the amusement of the audience. That segment was probably the most insane thing I have ever witnessed. Next up are the fembots, operated by a dancer, with a second dancer on top revving the audience up;


In total four roamed the performance space. Mid way through, audience members were invited to climb aboard and control the fembots. The following sequence saw scientists bring on large chrome robots which begin to dance. Later smaller robots come on and a few female dancers. Eventually they preform to Psy’s “Gangnam Style”;


Then it was time for the finale with a written pre-warning for the three westerners in the audience;


This utterly insane finale had scantily clad girls riding around on a circuit above the audience's heads (whom you could high five as they went past), a neon covered bomber and tank, bikes, lasers, smoke and bubble machines. With all of this insanity set to the sounds of the 1990's video game franchise “Sakura Wars” theme song "Attack! Imperial Floral Assault Team";





Admittedly I thought a lot of the women were pretty cute, and they even smiled and waived while I was filming on my camera. Yes, I'm a sucker for that kind of thing. After the performance, we were ushered upstairs and outside. Personally I think it was really worth the ¥4,000 I paid. It’s utterly nuts and really fun and kitschy. It has been suggested that it was intentionally made for foreigners in mind and deliberately plays up the orientalism aspect. In other words it’s deliberately weird in a way that plays up the misconceptions westerners have about Japan; it’s strange, full of technological marvels etc. To a degree this is true and most likely what they were aiming for. There’s also the unavoidable theme of nationalism, specifically militaristic nationalism, which was especially prevalent throughout finale, which could turn people off. However you just can’t deny that it’s over an hour of well-done entertainment, even if it is utterly over the top and doesn’t make an iota of sense.

Over the years the segments have evolved or changed completely, with a de-emphasis on the scantily clad showgirls. Parents can even bring their children along which seems utterly bizarre. I just imagine parents saying; "Hey kids, let’s go to the red light district and see some scantily clad women dancers and robots!". When this establishment first opened, there was little in the way of English speaking staff. Now they seem to cater almost exclusively to the western tourist market with discount tickets being sold at major hotels and even a shuttle bus from those same hotels to the venue. I’m not too sure if changes over the years or the new segments have improved the Robot Restaurant or if it has sanitised it. I know having ladies in skimpy outfits may put off some western tourists who find it sexist, but it's in Kabukicho for god's sake. Despite the efforts over the years to make Kabukicho family friendly, it's still rather seedy. It also now costs an astronomical ¥8,000 (plus ¥1,000 for the meal, which admittedly looks a bit better than the old bento boxes they previously had). Whether or not it’s now worth it, I’m not too sure. I really don’t think I could justify spending that amount to see it again.

Next time I’ll be heading off to Asakusa and Kappabashi Street.

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