If Kabukicho had a theme park starring Akihabara chika aidoru (“underground” idols), this might be it…
It is located in the heart of Shinjuku’s world of the erotica. The entrance is a garish, bright open plaza manned by cold beefy bouncers who are if not quite rude, certainly very unwelcoming and unhelpful (don’t expect any kind of guidance). In other words, just like a sex club or strip club.
Anyway, then you go over to the main building on the other side of the street to a horrifically bright waiting room. Seriously, it’s so bright that your eyes hurt. There you are surrounded mirrors and flashing lights, and constant sound.
After waiting for the audience to leave from the previous show, you then go down the stairs to the basement performance area where you are given a bento lunchbox and asked to take a seat on one of the two audience areas. It is a kind of traverse stage, with the “show” happening in the hallway between the two blocks of seats.
This means you spend as much time watching the giant walls of screens showing cheap CGI battles and images of female warriors on horseback, and, naturally, the faces of the other audience members.
We were expecting an audience of sleazy guys or otakus, but actually it was mostly just curious Japanese and foreigners. Considering that the club has advertised itself on its mammoth budget (10 billion yen or $130 million!), the handful of empty seats are not a good sign, though. (Saying that, we can’t really see where the money went but anyway…)
Now to the show itself. Words fail me. It features essentially about 20 dancers who play instruments and, well, dance. Stylistically it’s the biggest smorgasbord of kitsch and the burlesque you are likely to see outside of a Takarazuka performance, only with Kabukicho strip culture and Akihabara chika aidoru motifs thrown in for good measure. It is also erotic; all the girls are scantily clad, plus some had busts we hadn’t seen in Japan except in a porn film.
But more than being aroused, we were most of just simply befuddled by the swirling vortext of influences and elements poured into the mix here. A fighting panda. Drumming girls. A dinosaur. A tank. Sci-fi. Robots. Sex. Sexism. Cheesy smiling idol subculture with genuinely alluring sexuality (well, actually, that’s quite common in Japan so we’re at least used to that).
It is around an hour long, though structured as a series of numbers, so there are quite frequent pauses. Considering it now costs ¥5,000 (with a bento lunchbox meal and drink included), it is a little expensive then, though the kitsch is priceless. For the record, I went with a group of gay Americans and they all seemed to have a whale of a time.
The style of the dancing and music was more Gekidan Shinkansen than genuine strip club, and the finale with the carnival float robots (you have to wait quite a while for the robots to appear!) and a neon tank, followed by dancers who hang from the ceiling, is utterly impossible to define.
Here’s the video we made!
While the whole get-up may appear rather crude, the Keio University-developed device can remember and reproduce delicate strokes right down to the force applied to the brush.
The professor behind the project explains:
There’s a motor attached to the brush, so while the person’s moving, the motion and force are recorded as digital data using the motor. What’s more, with this technology, the recorded motion and force can be reproduced anytime, anywhere using the motor.
We’ve succeeded in using the motor to record the movements of a veteran calligrapher, and to actually reproduce them. So, I think we’ve demonstrated that, to record and reproduce human skills, it’s necessary to record not just motions, but also how strongly those motions are made.
Given that a lot of traditional crafts and techniques in Japan are generational and need to be passed down to new artisans, this kind of robot may be one way to store ancient arts so that they can be re-learnt again in the event that younger disciples are not found to replace aging masters.
However, with something like calligraphy it is not only about method. There are also more ambiguous emotions behind the strokes and the feeling in the way the brush is handled. A machine or robot may be able to record the direction and pressure on the brush, but not the mood of the calligrapher or what was happening in their mind at the time of the creation process.
The results are an impressive “copy” but is it just technique, as opposed to something more instinctive, more, dare I say it, artistic?
Talking of putting the “artifice” back into “art”, this reminds us of the robot “artist” created by So Kanno and Takahiro Yamaguchi in 2011.
And, while it doesn’t look as visually impressive, it seems that at any rate these people actually got there first with their smaller calligraphy robot.
You get the Robot Restaurant, built at a reputed cost of 10 billion yen ($130 million).
Kind of like the leftovers from an unfinished Mad Max sequel, these scantily clad ladies ride around on large “robots” for pseudo-idol performances, only without much singing or dancing.
Following its opening over the summer, the Robot Restaurant has proved so popular that the charge has now increased to a whopping ¥4,000 yen ($50). Each “show” lasts around one hour and is held three to four times a day. Heck, it’s cheaper than Vegas, maybe?
We do like the nod to traditional Japanese theatre (namely Bunraku puppet theatre) with the stagehands dressed in black (kurogo), since officially they are “not there” as they arrange the set. Actually the whole affair has an air of Kabuki (appropriately for its location) or Gekidan Shinkansen — high octane, utterly superficial and silly, and yet kind of entertaining as well.
There is also an interesting list of types of customers who will be turned away at the door. It includes host and hostesses (or other people working in mizushobai industry — a large amount of whom ply their trade in Kabukicho), as well as cosplayers and otherwise “unusually” dressed people, and even “pushy” personalities (presumably to protect the performers). (Plus you cannot watch the show wearing sunglasses.)
This is intriguing since the concept of the restaurant is definitely Akihabara and Harajuku subcultures, mixed with the naughtiness of Kabikicho — and yet all the genuine minions of these domains might not be allowed in to see the results!
We haven’t been ourselves yet and we wonder how longer this place will be around… but we’re tempted.