TOKYO -- The streets of Shinjuku’s Kabukichō red light district are an assault on every sense and sensibility, with touts openly hawking prostitutes, vending machines selling pre-worn panties and sake vomit pooling in the alleys behind the many bars. But upon descending the kaleidoscopic stairwell into Robot Restaurant, I entered a whole new level of opulent decadence.
This year-old fetish palace is the most expensive sex attraction ever built in Tokyo (about $100 million), but it’s proving to be a smart investment in Japan’s competition for the lustful tourist dollar. From the dozens of cafes offering visitors a chance to be doted on by tweens wearing skimpy French maid costumes to the burgeoning genki scene that pairs porn stars with eels, dogs and sea cucumbers, there is something for every taste in Tokyo.
But Robot Restaurant is the apex of this scene, filling all 100-plus seats for two shows nearly every night. It often holds first place in the “most viewed venues” rankings on Time Out Tokyo’s website, and has even featured prominently in the official music video for Muse's hit single “Panic Station.”
The subterranean space is a maelstrom of about 12,000 undulating LED lights, walls adorned with yard after yard of polymer-sculpted hallucinogenic dreamscapes and bathrooms plated from toilet to walls in faux gold. Once we grabbed our complimentary beers, we were escorted to stadium-style seats to await the show we’d paid about $50 a piece to endure.
It kicked off with a comically inappropriate performance of vaguely African tribal music led by masked drummers and torch-wavers, perhaps an anachronistic prelude to the epic futurism that was to come.
A procession of dance routines came next, as a troupe of young Japanese girls paraded across the floor in the first of several rounds of revealing outfits, presenting their nubile bodies to the gaggle of drunken horndogs whose urges were hardly sated by the teasing strokes of their heads and extended appendages on offer. The enraptured crowd, which also included some stupified couples, furiously clicked away on camera phones, not quite anticipating the scale of what was yet to come.
Over time, the cavorting grew less choreographed as a steady flow of humans bedecked in everything from Disneyland-style animal costumes to chrome Terminator armor skated out while women wearing Daft Punk-style illuminated rave helmets mounted massive spinning light-bombs and won play-fights against alien beasts. Meanwhile, puzzling CGI-heavy videos clips telling incoherent, wordless stories of medieval battles and futuristic conquests played ceaselessly on more than 100 flatscreens mounted to the walls and ceiling in an attempt to provide an ambiguous narrative to connect the whole procession.
After about 30 minutes of dances featuring increasingly elaborate and costly props and costumes, eventually bringing Segues and mechanized humanoids right out of the Transformers films into the mix, the set cleared for intermission, a brief respite to our overtaxed synapses while the Gundamettes were prepped for Round Two.
Once everyone had been quickly served a second beer to inure us against the visual onslaught to come, the towering buxom cyborgs were rolled out to a wave of cheers and high-fiving as the dancers draped their taut, living bodies over the cold, plastic gynoids. Forever staring dead-eyed straight ahead and designed to look as though they too were wearing revealing lingerie, monstrous contraptions were seemingly molded in the haunting model of Marilyn Manson's “Antichrist Superstar,” which depicts a sex symbol/rock star emerging from Hades to reign over a future world of robotic sex slaves and numbing vapidity.
The fem-bots so heavily advertised on street corners across Tokyo and paraded through the streets by marketing trucks had finally been revealed, and the enthralled guests were getting their money’s worth.
It's an enduring contemporary phenomenon; for years visitors to Tokyo have wanted to be transported into a galactic land of neon, sex and technology, and Robot Restaurant is the current epitome of that near-ubiquitous dream. It is certainly a fun ride, in the revelatory way that encounters with the fantastically strange, debased and new tend to be.
But the dark underbelly of the experience never fully subsides as the show proceeds, and the creators of Robot Restaurant weren’t going to let Westerners have their technophile tourism without facing a reminder of what was done to this storied archipelago not so long ago. For the grand finale, the girls donned tarted-up American World War II sailor garb to herald the introduction of two colossal cartoonish military vehicles lined with lights that made Akihabara -- Tokyo's blindingly incandescent answer to Times Square -- seem dim.
The ladies then climbed aboard the LED-spangled airplane and tank, and rode them like bulls back and forth across the stadium floor, waving and smiling falsely at their adoring audience. Then they disembarked one-by-one into metallic contraptions that sent them careening around the perimeter of the room via an upside-down roller coaster track of sorts, circling the crowd and completing their descent into objectification as the assembled men posed for yet another round of selfies in the shadows of their splayed bodies.
The show ended with the dancers jumping down from their perches and skipping off to their dressing rooms. The equipment was all rolled backstage as the attendees filed out and workers feverishly cleaned up behind them, readying the stadium for the 11 p.m. show.
We trudged back up the claustrophobic stairs and out into the night, where the frenzied energy of Kabukichō no longer tantalized us as it had just an hour before. We were left with a strip-clubby feeling of having used and been used while simultaneously arriving at the ecstatic moment we had sought since we boarded the plane in New York.
We stopped for sushi on the way back to the hotel, where we sipped complimentary green tea in a ritual that recalled the insular Japan of antiquity. Tokyo is a city of extremes, and Robot Restaurant is just one the newest ones on the scene.