August 28, 2012
TOKYO - In a restaurant down an alley in one of Tokyo's best-known red light districts, four massive female robots wink and wave as they lumber to the beat of traditional Japanese drums and a Lady Gaga dance tune.
It's show time at the "Robot Restaurant," a new and high-tech take on the city's decades-old cabaret scene that puts a friendly, if unusual, face on the robot technology in which Japan is a world leader.
More than half the world's industrial robots are used here, but the featured performers at the brand-new venue, which owners say cost 10 billion yen ($125.8 million) and took three years to build, are 3.6 meter-high, custom-made female robots with facial features controlled by the club's women dancers.
The lower half of each robot resembles the iconic Japanese character Gundam on wheels, while its curvaceous human-like upper body is clad in a futuristic gladiator outfit. They have blonde, brown or red hair with blue or green eyes. Each is controlled by two bikini-clad women, who perch in a high seat attached to the robot's stomach and control the facial features and legs using joysticks attached to the seats for the hour-long "Fighting Females" performance.
"The concept behind this restaurant is fighting, feisty females, and the robots are part of that theme," said the club's spokesman, who goes only by his last name, Watanabe. "Everything apart from the central component of the robots is made and assembled by us."
Japan has a long-standing fascination with robots, which have always been seen as friendly and helpful - in contrast to the West, where they are more often seen as cold or sinister. One of the Japan's best-loved cartoon series, "Astro Boy," about a robotic boy who fights injustice and crime, was written by Osamu Tezuka, often referred to as Japan's Walt Disney. The comic was created and produced in Tezuka's studio not far from where the robot restaurant stands today.
Robots: New Jobs, New Opportunities, New Challenges
The robot show and glitzy club hark back to the days of Japan's bubble economy, the boom of the mid- to late-1980s that saw flashy clubs sprout up in Tokyo to cater to the newly-rich. After a short intermission, in which visitors enjoy a drink and a bento boxed meal that come with the 4,000 yen ($51)admission, the women reappear in military-themed costumes and charge onto the stage maneuvering the robot-vehicles, which move up and down between the crowds.
By the end of the hour-long spectacle, the dancers are aboard a miniature airplane that zips overhead as American rock music blares over the speakers. One last dance routine involving fairy costumes and light sabres, and the audience is ushered out of the theatre.
"I saw a blog about this and tweeted it to my friends and dragged them along to the show," said one Tokyo man, watching with two female friends. "I honestly don't know what I expected out of it, but it's something I knew I would never see anywhere else."
Others appeared somewhat baffled.
"I'm not sure what I just saw in there," several audience members said as they headed to the nearest train station.
Reporting by Mari Saito