A lot has changed in the 3 years since we first visited the Robot Restaurant. The same week we originally reviewed the Robot Restaurant, Anthony Bourdain profiled it on Parts Unknown. It thereafter received a flurry of media coverage (what can we say–people love dancing robots!) and has even since been featured in commercials for Expedia and a myriad of other mainstream publications.
We’ve been back to the Robot Restaurant more times than we care to admit. Actually, no. We should take pride in our 3 subsequent visits to the Robot Restaurant since our first visit, and it’s been fascinating to see it evolve.
The Robot Restaurant has undoubtedly gone mainstream and is now as much of a tourist destination in Japan as the Tokyo Tower or one of the country’s many breathtaking shrines. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with places becoming tourist draws, but in the case of a show featuring scantily-clad women that takes place in Tokyo’s Red Light district…well, there sort of is.
We witnessed this first-hand on our second visit to the Robot Restaurant, where seated in front of us was a father was in attendance with his two children, both of whom were likely under 10 years of age. I don’t think this was the case of the “cool” or progressive father wanting to expose his kids to this sort of thing at a young age…I think he saw a promo reel featuring badass robots and booked immediately on that basis (again, everyone loves robots!).
I’d hazard a guess that this was a scene that replayed itself at the Robot Restaurant on a nightly basis. Unknowing tourists stumbling into an epic robot battle, only to find that it was a bit more than they bargained for. I say “was the scene” because this all changed with our last visit.
Before we get to that, one positive that we’ve noticed during our two most recent visits is a much better “pre-show” (if you want to call it that). The location of the waiting area has changed, and it’s no longer crowded with too few chairs to go around. Not only is there plenty of space, but there’s also an all-robot band!
As for the changes to the show itself to make it tamer, it’s all about costuming. The costumes no longer revealed excess cleavage (just some cleavage) and the most sexually suggestive segments had been cut out. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the show was something wholesome and for the family, but it was tame as compared to its earlier incarnations.
Regardless, the show still takes place in Shinjuku, so in order to get to that relatively tame show, you’d have to walk the family through lines of sketchy men soliciting you for “anything you want massages” (or straight-up sex if they get bold) and buildings plastered with sexy advertisements. Great if you want to field awkward questions from your kids, but otherwise an area that families should avoid.
Mind you, Shinjuku is all harmless “adults dressed up in raccoons racing go-karts” fun during the day, but at night it’s a different story…
For adults, this is part and parcel of the experience, and not all that interesting. What I think is infinitely more interesting is how the show has changed in tone and audience demographics. The first time we went, the audience was probably one-third Westerners and two-thirds Japanese. That has shifted to the point that it was almost entirely Westerners on our most recent visit.
The resulting tonal shift is that the show has gone from a fixation on American cultural to a fixation on Japanese culture. Gone are the Captain America and Robots v. America scene, as are a number of other American cultural references.
In their place are Japanese lanterns, Taiko drums, folklore characters, and other elements of “authentic” Japanese culture.
Ostensibly, this seems counter-intuitive. Why tone down American culture and play up Japanese culture if it’s mostly foreign tourists? My presumption is because that’s what they think foreign audiences expect. Tourists come to Japan to see that sort of thing, so give them that. The sad reality is that this makes it less authentic.
I know, it sounds crazy. How could making it more authentic actually make it less authentic? Because the parts of Japanese culture the show embraces don’t intersect with dancing, fighting robots. They are historical, not pop culture. There are few things more authentic in Japan’s pop culture than the country’s obsession with American pop culture.
Anyone who has been to Japan has undoubtedly seen clothes with random English text and references to the United States (my favorite shirt I’ve seen in Japan remains one that was simply a “Santa Monica Freeway” road sign).
This is an indelible part of Japanese culture, just as much as the shrines and palaces are a part of the culture. Someday, I hope there’s exhaustive scholarly research done on the Robot Restaurant, for as crazy as it is, there’s more to the place than just robots slugging it out.
But you’re probably not here for academic, anthropological analysis. Let’s get down to brass tacks: the epic robot throw-downs. They are still here, and they are spectacular.
The Robot Restaurant show has not lost its edge. It’s still every bit the acid-trip it was when we first went, it just feels less rough around the edges. Always lavish and big budget, you can tell it has seen an infusion of cash, as new robots continue to get bigger and better.
Obviously, bigger robots are better, but there’s also the added excitement generated by the fear these new robots rouse in you. If a larger robot catches fire–or the fire coming out of it catches something else on fire–it’s more likely to burn the whole place down, causing you and everyone in the deep-underground venue to the meet a grizzly, robot-fueled death.
With this bigger budget also means more, and cooler lasers. Robot Restaurant’s laser game is most certainly on point.
Just as important, the performers at the Robot Restaurant are still immensely talented. This in no way has been diluted by the additional shows, and it still boggles my mind that they all are able to memorize and act out the choreographed show that seems to change by the day with such precision.
These performers are often overshadowed in reviews such as this one by the outlandishness of the robots, but there is some true talent on display during these shows. I’m not kidding at all.
When I write that the show seems to change by the day, I mean it. On one visit, Sarah was selected to box against one of the robots.
She, of course, emerged victorious and is now in Japan’s Robot Boxing Hall of Fame, but interestingly enough, this segment was totally absent from the show during our next visit. Perhaps she did such an exceptional job that they felt her performance could never be topped? I’m not sure.
While certain segments may change by the day, adding nearly endless repeatability to the show, the general structure of the show has remained the same since we started visiting. That’s part of why it’s interesting to watch the tonal shift from American to Japanese culture–because the American segments were essentially swapped out for Japanese ones.
At the end of the day, the question you probably have is whether it’s still worth it to go to the Robot Restaurant. That’s a silly question, but so is devoting all this text to what could’ve been a one-sentence blog post: yes, of course the Robot Restaurant is worth it. Even as the Robot Restaurant explodes in popularity and retools its tone and style, the show has that same sense of heart and “what did I just see?!” oddities that make it a highlight of any visit to Japan. We visit Japan once per year, and we will continue to do so until the robots become sentient and kill us all.
If you’re planning a visit to Tokyo, Japan, please check out my other posts about Tokyo for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there. Tokyo has a lot of things to see and do, so I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Japan Guide to help better develop an efficient plan while there.
Have you visited The Robot Restaurant? What about Shinjuku? Is it a place you’d like to visit? Get what I mean about the counter-intuitive cultural component? Have the commercials and all of the coverage convinced you that it’s a must do? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!