Last year I was lucky enough to review Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life, Michael Pronko’s first essay collection about his adopted city. I found that book to be full of insight and variety, so was delighted to be approached about reviewing his latest book, Motions and Moments, which is a third set of essays (after Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens). Again the book is compiled from Pronko’s Newsweek Japan articles, this time from 2011 onwards. All of the pieces have been reworked, but most of them remain short; ‘Tokyo life is about spatial limitations,’ Pronko wryly comments, and it’s appropriate for his pieces to reflect that.
‘The irresolvable problem, I’d say, is how to be myself and yet also be a Tokyoite, a trick I’m still mastering,’ Pronko confesses. In essence, that is what these essays are about: the ways in which he has adapted to life in Japan, but also his continued suspicion that, coming from the ‘wide-open American spaces’ of the Midwest, he might always be a gawky outsider. Compared to the earlier collection, I sense Pronko is more comfortable in his surroundings, perhaps happier to include himself in ‘we’ rather than looking on passively at ‘them’. For instance – inspired by Japanese women’s perfect outfits – he consciously tries to dress better, and he’s taken to eating ramen and sleeping on a futon, just like a native.
Still, there is plenty of wonderfully strange behaviour to remark upon in Tokyo, like the ‘gifts’ that come with most purchases, the bewildering English slogans that show up on T-shirts, and the ‘super-convenience’ kiosks where one can buy just about anything, so that forgetting something essential as you catch the morning train is never a problem. Recycling policies are so stringent that one has to separate various plastics, chiefly burnable vs. non-burnable types, and rubbish collectors will leave a sign and refuse to take the bag if it’s done wrong.
In a hypermodern city so defined by plastic, technology, constant construction and fashion, Pronko nostalgically looks for traces of the true, ancient Tokyo – a slower, simpler ‘world of wood, ceramic, cloth and paper.’ It might be found at tucked-away shrines or jazz clubs; it is more evident during the summer months, when the heat forces people to linger and indulge their ‘inner child’ (the subject of ‘The Summer Slowing,’ one of the best individual essays). The thing to remember, Pronko emphasises, is that Tokyo is never just one thing: generalisations don’t work perfectly; it’s a city of multiple layers, both literally and metaphorically.
The stand-out section is Part Four, a series of five dated essays reflecting on the city’s recent earthquakes, particularly the one followed by a tsunami in March 2011. The final piece in the set is from June 2015, after several smaller quakes brought back the emotions of years before. I was reminded of some of the literature that came out after 9/11 – the fear, the uncertainty, the sense of everyone pulling together and preparing for the next crisis.
Cramped, bureaucratic, clinical and terribly busy as it might often be, it’s clear that Pronko loves Tokyo. This is another eloquent tribute to a city full of contradictions and wonders. I didn’t like this collection quite as much as the first one, but there’s not much in it at all. Both books are about the title’s ‘moments’, those glints of connection and significance that can be found in everyday life:
Most of my days in Tokyo are suffused with the white light of daily experience. But from time to time, it hits the prism at the right angles and explodes into meanings, ideas, associations, directions. With a slight tilt, Tokyo diffracts wild spectrums of meanings. … These essays are less mirror [autobiography] and more prism.