Review: Beauty and Chaos: Essays on Tokyo Life by Michael Pronko ★★★★★
Beauty and Chaos: Essays on Tokyo Life (also subtitled as Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life; full title 僕、トーキョーの味方です in Japanese) is a collection of writings by Michael Pronko on his experiences of the past 15 years living and working in Tokyo, originally published in Newsweek Japan, collected together here.
Born in Kansas City, and traveling across the world to places like Beijing, Pronko sets his view on Tokyo with the eyes of a writer well-traveled, but with an American-raised core to his ideas, his once-fresh eyes, and his general outlook.
These aspects are important in the consideration of Beauty and Chaos as Pronko evaluates his new home through a mixture of being someone from the outside looking in, and as someone now rooted on the inside of the Tokyo culture. These kinds of working contradictions make up the core theme of the collection, painting Tokyo as a city full of them: both fast-paced and serene; traditionalist and cutting edge; beautiful and chaotic.
A palette of mixed binaries and oppositions is how Pronko paints the city, and does so vividly. The book endeavors to capture the subtle and the obvious in what makes Tokyo such a rich, appealing place to visit or live, and does so poetically. From the small pauses in the daily rushes with a drink from a vending machine, to the larger attractions and the blaring neon that informs the cover, all aspects form a series of images of the city that come together as a wonder-filled narrative of the area.
The book is equal parts journal and travel guide (travelogue, debatably), though mostly it stands as neither. The book is informed by experience, and describes emotions and phenomena common to the Tokyo lifestyle over must-see spots and travel tips. Furthermore, the book is in no way something made exclusively for those who have experienced life in Tokyo, as it maintains itself in a very easy to understand way, even to a complete foreigner.
The translation from original Japanese Newsweek for English reading is very successful, complete with gentle re-translations of common terms (along with a glossary, just in case) that fit the flow of every haiku-like sentence. Pronko illustrates his points with marvelous skill, most impressive in that his writing carries a distinct air of Japanese linguistic habits while remaining skillful and succinct in English. Truly the book is as the city it describes, an eclectic mix and a contradiction in of itself. It is clearly defined by its author without being so tied to his specific personality or life that there is a loss of purity to the experience.
For readers interested in Tokyo, in modern Japanese life and culture, or in simply reading a beautiful set of essays of a place you may or may never have been yourself, Beauty and Chaos is a spectacular read. Its essays are long enough to be cohesive and provocative while remaining short and sweet, never rushing points but never falling too far off track. The collection is masterful and unique, and well worth the time to read through.