Start with an image. A man walking down a street in Tokyo. Steep, like San Francisco. Maybe Daikanyama. As the man walks toward Shibuya, two men follow in the shadows.
They want to kill him!
Thus was born John Rain, assassin for hire, expert in staging fatal “accidents,” creating “natural causes” of death.
As author Barry Eisler tells it, John Rain was conceived in a Tokyo subway one morning in 1993 as Eisler, then a 29-year-old corporate lawyer and ex-CIA agent (he had worked out of the agency’s Tokyo office for three years), was on his way to work. In 2002, after years of writing and revising “Rain Fall,” the first of what would become six “Rain” suspense-action novels, and after 50 rejections of his manuscript by agents, the book was published by American publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The next five “Rain” novels were released one per year from 2003 to 2007.
The name “Rain” — the alias for the central character, a Vietnam War U.S. Special Forces vet born of a Japanese father and an American mother — came from a quote the author read about the samurai of 19th-century Japan: “In the changing times they were like autumn lightning, a thing out of season, an empty promise that rain would fall on fields already bare.”
“I conceived of Rain in similar terms — someone out of place in the world,” the author tells The Japan Times. “So his name became ‘Rain.’ ”
Like those samurai, the restless and relentless Rain has a foot in two worlds but is at home in neither. “John Rain,” the back cover of a Penguin paperback edition tells us, “may not be a good man, but he’s good at what he does.”
With the arcane technology of the modern hit man, martial-arts scenes enhanced by Eisler’s own experiences in judo (he’s a black belt) and CIA paramilitary training, and exotic (for Western readers) locations and characters, both good guys and bad, Eisler discovered a formula that he has sustained for the past seven years, resulting in the release this month of a film based on the first novel.
Eisler, who told an audience at a recent Q&A and book-signing event at Ben’s Cafe in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba area that promotion takes up more of his year than actual writing, is also happy to be able to promote the Japanese/English-language movie “Rein Foru: Ame no Kiba” (“Rain Fall: Fangs of the Rain”), made by Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan and starring Kippei Shiina as John Rain, Kyoko Hasegawa as the essential love interest, and Gary Oldman (speaking English with Japanese subtitles) as William Holder, Rain’s archenemy from the CIA. The movie opens April 25.
Currently spending a year in Tokyo at the behest of his 9-year-old daughter, who was curious about life in Japan, Eisler has been putting his Japanese to good use while promoting the film to the domestic press, slipping into casual conversation the phrase “someone who can make an Improvised Roadside Explosive Device out of everyday materials.”
Eisler’s latest book, released just last month, is “Fault Line,” a “non-Rain” hit-man adventure. This one is set in California’s Silicon Valley, where Eisler once worked as an executive at a startup company. Although (like “Rain Fall”) envisioned as a stand-alone novel, the writer admits that a sequel has already begun to form in his brain.
Since Eisler’s promotional campaigns for his books tout his experience as a covert CIA agent based in Tokyo from 1989-92, along with his black belt in judo and his career as a corporate lawyer both in Japan and California, one is hard-pressed not to take a cynical attitude, given the cynical nature of the CIA itself, toward anyone claiming to be an “ex-spy.”
Indeed, while Eisler’s answers to questions about his work habits, his plans for future projects and the inspirations for his books are enthusiastic and detailed, his replies to queries about the CIA are vague, evasive and ambiguous. He talks around the questions, rather than answering them.
When asked, for example, both by The Japan Times and an audience member during the Q&A what he had done in the CIA, both answers are identical: “I didn’t do very much. Mostly it was training: paramilitary training, spy-school training and language training.”
When asked, “Are you currently an undercover agent for the CIA?” he replies: “That would make a great story, wouldn’t it? Hiding in plain sight, concealing your continued involvement by telling everyone that you’ve quit.”
Later, when asked why he quit, he explains: “From the outside, the CIA seems pretty exotic, but from the inside, it’s a big bureaucratic place. Think ‘post office with spies.’ ”
He goes on to say that he was too much an independent spirit, resistant to authority, and that for him, he found the CIA “an uncomfortable fit.”
On the subject of his contributions to the film adaptation of his first novel, however, Eisler is quite expansive, even though his involvement with the final product was minimal.
Eisler explains that after “Rain Fall” was published, he spent a year studying how to write a film script. The best method, he learned, was to watch a movie with a copy of its screenplay in hand, which he did with a number of films until he mastered the basic format and techniques. He then submitted his film script for “Rain Fall” to Sony Pictures, which had optioned the novel, and it bought the script. Ultimately, however, director Max Mannix wrote his own screenplay for the film adaptation and Eisler’s association with the movie, except as a cheerleader, came to an end.
“After I sold my screenplay adaptation of ‘Rain Fall’ to Sony Pictures, I had no more creative involvement,” admits Eisler.
“Books are my art,” he says, since he has full artistic control over the finished work. (While his editor’s suggestions are often useful he says, the final decisions lie, as the author, with him.) “The movie is someone else’s art. But it’s great marketing for books.”
In the novel “Rain Fall,” Rain is hired by Japan’s perennially ruling Liberal Democrat Party to bump off a rogue party member who is threatening to blow the whistle on a major corruption scandal. But the contracting entity in the movie is so amorphous that Eisler himself couldn’t figure out who it’s supposed to be.
The first two sequels, “Hard Rain” and “Rain Storm,” have also been optioned by Sony Pictures. Eisler would like to see “Fault Line” adapted as well, and deliberately wrote in lots of visual action scenes that would translate easily to the big screen.
As The Japan Times’ interview with Eisler winds down, we ask him about the challenges of creating a sympathetic hero out of a cold-blooded killer. After all, Rain is not alone in this role. Other virtual colleagues include the popular Japanese manga assassin “Golgo 13,” Heavy Metal Magazine’s “Lamar: Killer of Fools” and, most noteworthy, the samurai-inspired Mafia hit man Ghost Dog, brilliantly portrayed by Forest Whitaker in the 1999 Jim Jarmusch film “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” a Quixotic and innovative adaptation of the Edo Period classic “Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai.” Eisler says he thinks people who enjoyed “The Bourne Identity” and its sequels would also like “Rain Fall.”
Referring to both “Ghost Dog” and the revered “Godfather” movie series, Eisler emphasizes three narrative strategies. First, make the assassin the centerpiece of the story; using a first-person narrator offers a big advantage. The more we know about his inner thoughts and motives, the more sympathetic we become.
Next, put him in a milieu where those around him are even worse. In Don Corleone’s world, the cops are more crooked than the gangsters, and in “Ghost Dog,” the hero’s loyalty to his code of ethics stands in sharp contrast to the betrayals of his Mafia employers.
Finally, give the killer good qualities that other characters don’t have. The Don can be kind and generous, and is a good family man. Ghost Dog has a soft spot for books and children, and readily shares his literary favorites with a little girl in the neighborhood who carries books in her lunch box instead of food. In Eisler’s 2006 book “The Last Assassin,” Rain is moved to tears by the sight of his infant son peacefully sleeping in his crib.
When asked of his literary ambitions beyond the suspense-action genre, Eisler responds, “Action fiction is driven more by what than by who. Put that ticking nuclear suitcase under Manhattan and it’s relatively easy to create suspense. Literary fiction is driven more by who than by what. My ambition is to write the best possible story. In my books, I try to write about both.”
“Rain Fall: Ame no Kiba” opens April 25. “Fault Line” is out now.