Robot wars in Shinjuku | Robot Restaurant, Tokyo


Robot Restaurant in Tokyo is a wild, hallucinatory trip back in time to the surreal, OTT pop culture of Japan’s long gone Bubble Economy. Apparently it cost ¥10 billion to create. And that’s a lot of LED lighting strips

Robot wars in Shinjuku | Robot Restaurant, Tokyo

To call me a reluctant visitor to Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant would be to understate the fact, in much the way that to describe the spectacle one encounters there as “gaudy” undersells it by a degree science hasn’t coined magnitudes enough to quantify. In an upstairs waiting room – a mirror-bejewelled space which resembles Paris Hilton’s dressing room in The Bling Ring raised to the thousandth power – two Segway-powered robots glide around with the kind of fixed-grille rictus grins last seen on Judge Death. (This is the first time I think I’ve ever invoked Hilton or Death in my life. Robot’s insane sci-fi/sleb mashup gets in your brain.) The gents’ lavatories, every surface covered in gold-mirrored glitz, bring to mind the tombs of pharaohs. Descending through neon-striped, strobe-lit stairwells from whose walls leer three-dimensional renderings of Ed Hardy-style tattoos – all roses, snakes and slatterns – one enters a long narrow space with fixed seats in banks on either side. I settled in to my table and opened up the bento box. For an included-in-the-ticket-price packed lunch, it was surprisingly good.

The crowd is a winning mix of families, students, tourists, and business groups. Well, if you’re going to take an overseas client somewhere in Tokyo, you may as well try to make their eyes pop out their head. At the start, I was a little concerned for the parents who’d brought their six year-old daughter to the show, and was delighted to see that while some very energetic young ladies, in very brief outfits, were swinging themselves around on poles to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” she was looking at her watch in manifest disinterest.

Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku, by Civilian Tokyo

Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku, by Civilian Tokyo

By the time a heated battle was going on between some laser-swinging space mutants and some – hang on, this all gets a bit hazy – some ecosystem-defending denizens of a jungle planet, which included a being that was half-woman half-tarantula, a land shark twice Jaws’s size, with laser-red eyes, and a friendly panda riding a cow, I was at least transported. “Dinner theatre” usually conjures up something rather more sedate; this 80-minute show started with what lesser shows might deem a climax and proceeded to raise the stakes, progressing next to a duel between four twelve-foot tall Barbie dolls on which the erstwhile pole-dancers gyrated and seemed to be having a jolly nice time. Each time you imagined it impossible to top the previous spectacle, Robot pulled out still more stops.

“The noise! The colours! The horror!”

For the finale, four titanic figures – nine feet tall animated creatures whose design might make the legal teams of both Power Ranger and Terminator open their notebooks interestedly – dance and jig about to the musical score, while the gliding grinning creatures from the waiting room reappear, and a robot DJ spins some mobile decks (paging Daft Punk!), and some people whiz around on a sort of automated hula hoop-cum-motorbike which I immediately rather coveted, and loop around some more people wrapped head to toe in glowing coils of lights, resembling glow-in-the-dark mummies of the sort which might have emerged from the gold-bedizened loos upstairs. Then there’s a sort of fly-past by a 1940s propeller plane covered in LEDs, and from whose superstructure still more dancers casually dangled. And then there was a tank. It was a military show of strength from an alien power armed only with glowsticks and mirror-balls – an Apocalypse Now for a world where rainforests are long gone, replaced by neon-lit shopping malls. If ever there was a time to once and for all test yourself for a latent tendency to epilepsy, or indeed for attempting to knock oneself into a catatonic state by sheer I’ve-seen-too-much sensory overload, this was it. “The noise! The colours! The horror!”

Three things struck me as unalloyed positives. The entry fee is a snip at ¥6,000, or around £35 (less still per person for groups); in London, you’d be rinsed out by twice that. That bento box: it was pretty damned good. And then there was the effect on my companion, who’d all along been enthusiastic enough for two of us, and was transformed for the duration of that bells-and-whistles finale into the small boy he once was. Just as I can turn a blind eye to shoddy special effects in old episodes of Doctor Who, so too he didn’t seem to see the human figures jiving about beneath their hundredweight of chrome-effect plastic armour plating. “They’re real!” he breathed. “Real robots!”

I didn’t have the heart to correct him.

Not till the next day, anyway. C


Robot Restaurant, B2F Shinjuku Robot Bldg, 1-7-1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
+03-3200 5500;*

Neil Stewart travelled to Tokyo as a guest of Air France and the Japan National Tourism Organization

Neil Stewart is the Arts Editor of Civilian and the author of The Glasgow Coma Scale, published by Corsair, summer 2014

*Website with alarming music alert