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Author Barry Eisler finds gold on the mean streets of Tokyo

15 Comments
By Chris Betros

When you walk into Hatou, a coffee house in a back street of Shibuya, you immediately feel like you have entered the world of John Rain, the Japanese-American freelance assassin and antihero of six best-selling novels by Barry Eisler, the first of which – "Rain Fall" – has just been released as a movie. Eisler sits with his back to the wall, just as Rain would, as we chat. Like most successful authors, Eisler at times speaks of his characters as if they are real. “Actually, Rain wouldn’t sit at this table because you can’t see the entrance,” he says.

Born in New Jersey in 1964, Eisler graduated from Cornell Law School. In 1989, he joined the CIA and held a covert position for three years with the Directorate of Operations (now the National Clandestine Service). After leaving the CIA, he spent three years in Japan working in the legal field. It was during these years that Eisler says he started forming the idea for "Rain Fall." All six books – which are set against the backdrop of the US-Japan bilateral relationship – reflect Eisler’s time with the CIA, his experiences living in Osaka and Tokyo as well as his love of jazz and martial arts. Such is the gritty reality of the Rain books that many Tokyoites will recognize the hostess bars, judo clubs and back streets that crop up in the stories.

Eisler and his family are currently spending a year in Tokyo, though he goes back to the U.S. every 5-6 weeks. He has recently been promoting his 7th book – a non-Rain story titled "Fault Line" – and is currently writing the sequel to that. However, with the release of the film version of "Rain Fall," Eisler has been busy giving interviews, guest talks and making appearances at related events.

Sony bought the rights for the first three Rain books and commissioned Eisler to write the screenplay for "Rain Fall," but ultimately, director Max Mannix decided to write his own screenplay. Eisler doesn’t have any hard feelings. “I feel great about the movie. It’s one of those things. Max had his own vision for the kind of movie he wanted to make,” he concedes.

“The fundamental difficulty that most novelists face when they are trying to adapt their own book into a screenplay is realizing that a screenplay is a completely different way of storytelling and it has limitations. For example, action is easy to transpose to the screen but what is more difficult is transposing Rain’s inner world – a mind’s-eye view of the world of an assassin, what he thinks, how he reacts, how he reads tactical situations. That is what makes the books so successful. That is hard to put on the screen.

“The job of the screenplay is to identify and extract the essence of the story from the novel and reconfigure it for the screen, maintaining its essence in a different vehicle,” Eisler adds. “For fans of the books, this is an important thing to keep in mind. If you’re a fan of the books and you see this movie, I would not expect you’ll have the same story experience. My role now is more of a cheerleader. I visited the set last May and felt very welcome. Of course, as I was watching them shoot, I had various ideas about how it should be done. But this is not my movie and I recognized that fact.”

Originally, Jet Li had the original option for the character of Rain, but the option lapsed after a year. “I love Jet Li but he looks very Chinese and his English is Chinese accented. He wouldn’t have been the right guy to play a Japanese-American,” says Eisler. “You need an actor who is completely bicultural and who has those chameleon characteristics that enable him to change to fit into the environment.”

Filmmakers gambled with Kippei Shiina

Filmmakers took a gamble and cast Japanese actor Kippei Shiina as Rain. Relatively unknown to Western audiences, Shiina, 44, is much younger than Rain (who is in his late 50s) and is not bilingual or bicultural. Furthermore, the film only has one name recognizable to Western audiences – Gary Oldman who plays the CIA station chief in Tokyo. Kyoko Hasegawa rounds out the cast as the woman whose life Rain must protect. “I think it will be somewhat of a challenge distributing the film in America because subtitled movies don’t really do all that well outside of art houses. Hopefully, it will attract a cult following over time,” says Eisler.

The first four Rain books have been translated into Japanese. “Reviews have been terrific, really gratifying,” Eisler says. “I love Japan and Tokyo is my favorite city. You can’t fail to miss that if you read my books.” Certainly, Tokyo residents who are fans of the books will recognize many of Rain’s haunts -- Blue Note, Club Alfee in Roppongi, Body and Soul in Minami-Aoyama, These Library Lounge in Nishi-Azabu, the Imperial Hotel or the back streets of Shibuya and Asakusa.

Eisler is painstaking in his research; he visits all the places to soak in the atmosphere, check the menu, sample the whisky or coffee, and listen to the jazz. “A lot of authors who write about Japan make the mistake of getting caught up in their preconceptions of what makes Tokyo special. They write about this mysterious Oriental city with strange food, men in white gloves, elevator girls … those are obvious and clichéd, and for Japanese audiences, boring. What interests me as a novelist is getting to the essence of things, whether it is a character or place. What makes this coffee house Hatou what it is, for example?”

Eisler thinks Tokyo is an amazingly cinematic city, especially at night. “The lights form the city’s nocturnal character. You have back alleys lit up by glow. Then look at the stadium lights or all the neon you get around Dogenzaka. There is so much variety in lighting; it’s tailor-made for a movie.”

But as much as he loves Tokyo, the author does have three gripes: the summer heat, the lack of names on streets and addresses on buildings, and his pet peeve – smoking in coffee shops. “I really wish the country would catch up to the West in its respect for non-smokers. Take these coffee houses. There is nowhere on earth where coffee is made with greater reverence than here. I want to ask those people smoking at the next table how they can enjoy the subtle qualities of these wonderful cups of coffee. It’s a tragedy.”

Accused of hating America

In between all the interviews and book signings, Eisler is trying to find time to work on the sequel to "Fault Line," a conspiracy thriller set in Silicon Valley. Over the years, Eisler has attracted some criticism for the political overtones of his books. “A lot of people posting on Amazon or in emails to my website ask me why I hate America,” he says. “When did criticism of the government start to become the same as criticism of America itself? That is a very strange notion to me and very un-American. I love my country.”

After seven books, Eisler has attracted a growing fan base. “I have over 20,000 MySpace friends, 3,000 Facebook friends, and about 1,000 on my website discussion board. I’m on Mixi and Twitter.” One of the most frequently asked questions, he says, is about his CIA experiences and if he likes to put the boot into the CIA because he worked there. “The answer to that is no. Back then, I never felt that an attack on the CIA was an attack on me. Nowadays, I often get asked what I did at the CIA. Well, I haven’t run a coup in quite a few years, so I’m quite a bit rusty,” he jokes. “Actually, I had a covert position in the directorate of operations. When I left in 1992, I had to keep my cover. That’s routine. Around the time of my 4th book, my publisher wondered if it would be a better promotion for the books if readers didn’t get the feeling that I worked for the post office. So I asked for a change in status and now I can least say where I worked.”

He also has many sources that help him with research. Rain, for example, specializes in making hits look like natural deaths. “Doctors are a good research source for that. They are always reluctant at first to talk about how you could kill someone and make it look like they died of natural causes. Cops are another great source. At first, they, too, tend to be reluctant to talk about how you would get away with murder. But once they get going, they really get into it.”

When he is not writing, Eisler likes to indulge his passions of jazz and martial arts. When he lived in Japan in the 1990s, he got a black belt in judo from the Kodokan International Judo Center. He is currently training in Brazilian ju-jitsu.

“Martial arts can be a useful part of a self-defense system but they are the least cost effective and innermost layer of any kind of real self-defense,” Eisler says. “The outer layers are awareness and deterrence. It takes a tremendous amount of training to develop a useful capability. You have to study every day for a lot of years. The most cost effective way to learn to defend yourself is to learn to understand where, when and how violence occurs and avoid those situations. Martial arts won’t help you punch your way out of an ambush. If you ask John Rain what has kept him alive all these years, he would say avoiding it. When the punch comes, don’t be there.”

So after six books, is that the end of Rain? “It’s hard to switch off Rain, especially when I am in a coffee house like this in Tokyo. It is second nature for me to look at a place through Rain’s eyes. The character is now in his late 50s. What makes him appealing for me are the changes he is going through as he ages. He was pretty messed up psychologically at the end of the last book, so who knows?”

John Rain’s Tokyo haunts

Ben’s Cafe 1-29-21 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-3202-2445 Blue Note Tokyo RAIKA Bldg, 6-3-16 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-5485-0088 Body & Soul Anise Building, B-1, 6-13-9 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-5466-3348 Bo Sono Ni Big Mound Nishiazabu Building, 4-10-6 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-5766-1202 Cafe Peshaworl 3-1-4 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3242-1212 Club Alfie Hama Roppongi Bldg 5F, 6-2-35 Roppongi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3479-2037 Christie Tea & Cake 1-16-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3401-2866 D-Heartman Miyukikan Building, 4F 6-5-17 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3573-6123 Ginza-yu 1-12-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3561-2550 Hatou 1-15-9 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3400-908 Jardin de Luseine 1-15-14 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3470-3333 Las Chicas 5-47-6 Minami-Aoyama Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3407-6863 Monsoon Cafe 2-10-1 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3400-7200 Old Imperial Lounge 1-1-1 Uchisaiwai-cho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3504-1111 Rue Favart 3-28-12 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5421-0688 Tantra B1F Ichimainoe Bldg, 3-5-5 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5485-8414 These Library Lounge Karutetto Building 1F, Nishi-Azabu 2-15-12, Minato-ku. Tel: 813-5466-7331 Tsukumo Ramen (Ramen noodle, Ebisu) 1-1-36 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5466-9566 Tsuta Coffee Shop 5-2-20 Minami-Aoyama Minato-ku, Tel: 03-3498-6888 Volontaire 6-29-6 Jingu-mae, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3400-8629

For more info, visit www.barryeisler.com

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15 Comments
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The mean streets of Tokyo lol. Blech at these books too.

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I really wish the country would catch up to the West in its respect for non-smokers.

Translation: I wish Japan would also learn how to boss people around more like America does and order private business to do things that I feel are important. God knows I can't just go to Starbucks...I want it MY way.

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I thought the movie was not very good at all. I think Eisler is being diplomatic and trying to put on a good face as "cheerleader." I doubt that it will find a distributor in the U.S., even with Gary Oldman in it.

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What a cool guy! Ex-CIA and critic of USA and an author of bestsellers and a filmmaker and smart and handsome and so much more..... I am off to buy his books.

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goldsounds - huh? Since when does protecting the public against antisocial behaviour count as bossing around?

I guess you still believe the effects of second hand smoke and such are a non-issue?

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Seen this film. It's cack.

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“When did criticism of the government start to become the same as criticism of America itself? That is a very strange notion to me and very un-American

Sarge will not agree to this! as long as the government is not a Republican then it is ok. :p

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really enjoyed the books and the tour of Tokyo especially in the first one.

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These books sound horribly cliche. Multi-cultural assassin into martial arts, hostess clubs. Does he have a girlfriend into Ikebana, too?

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John Rain’s Tokyo haunts

what does this mean? a place where we can drink coffee with him and talk about his books? or are these advertisements of shops?

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goldsounds - huh? Since when does protecting the public against antisocial behaviour count as bossing around?

when you force private property owners to ban smoking, an act that is surely more dangerous than smoking itself. I'm sure the author can learn to find a bar that suits his needs on his own.

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who the heck is kippei shiina? never heard of any of them.

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Barry used to be a guest on the Mystery channel. His books are pretty fun.

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I for one, look forward to seeing the movie. I enjoyed the John Rain books. I only hope they don't butcher them in the flick as they sometimes do. Look at what they did when translating Clive Cussler books to film.

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where can i find this movie, i have been wating for it a long time ago.

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