by Diane Donovan
Anyone with an interest in Tokyo will want to consider the fifteen years of experience that’s gone into Michael Pronko’s Beauty and Chaos, an essay collection that comes from a professor with much experience in the city, who can bring it to life through flowery written descriptions.
Just what is so special about Beauty and Chaos, and what sets it apart from your usual Japanese cultural observation or travelogue? Plenty! For one thing, many of the essays center on the ironies and inconsistencies of Tokyo. Readers thus gain a much clearer vision of the city’s incongruities and attractions than your usual where-to-stay and what-to-see one-dimensional survey. Take train platforms, for example: “Such adrenaline-charged situations are rare, though. Typically, platforms most often offer space for solitude. Like Giacometti statues, thin and crinkly, surrounded by vast open space, the platforms are filled with people standing utterly alone. The occasional crowd around them makes no difference, they are framed by a huge open area that creates an anonymity and loneliness like no other place in the city.”
Under Pronko’s hand, something as simple as eating with chopsticks becomes not just a cultural observation but a dance of understanding and insight: “The chopsticks enact the food, display it, and energize it. Everything wiggles in the air. This re-created motion is clearest especially when eating uncooked foods, which are so common in Japan, and complement chopsticks well. Pieces of fish, especially fish, become re-animated by the motion towards the mouth. The sashimi lives swimmingly again for a moment before being tucked away.”
Just with these few passages, lifted laboriously from a plethora of wealthy, full-bodied writings, one can see that to truly know Tokyo and plan for a visit there, Beauty and Chaos should be right there at the top of the travel guides and trip planners. Without it, it would be all too easy to miss the city’s unique attractions and unique cultural attributes – and that would be a shame.
Beauty and Chaos is a rare gem of exploration that holds the ability to sweep observer/readers into a series of vignettes that penetrate the heart of Tokyo’s fast-paced world. Anyone planning a trip to the city (and many an armchair reader who holds a special affection for Japan) must have this in hand – and, in mind. Very highly recommended.