April 30, 2009
Author Barry Eisler has found gold on the mean streets of Tokyo with six books about Japanese-American assassin John Rain. Now the action is coming to the big screen
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on April 2009
When you walk into Hatou, a coffeehouse in the backstreets of Shibuya, you immediately feel like you’ve entered the world of John Rain. The Japanese-American freelance assassin is the antihero of six bestselling novels by Barry Eisler, the first of which, Rain Fall, has just been released as a big-budget movie starring Gary Oldman, Kippei Shiina and Kyoko Hasegawa. As we chat, Eisler sits with his back to the wall—just as Rain would. “Actually, Rain wouldn’t sit at this table because you can’t see the entrance,” he says.
Born in New Jersey in 1964, Eisler grew up in New Jersey. 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 organization, he spent three years in Japan working in the legal field, and it was during this time that he started forming the idea for Rain Fall. All six books reflect Eisler’s time with the CIA, his experiences living in Osaka and Tokyo, and 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 alleyways that crop up in the stories.
Eisler and his family are currently spending a year in Tokyo, though the writer shuttles back and forth between here and the US about every six weeks. He’s recently been promoting his seventh book—a non-Rain novel called Fault Line—and working on its sequel. However, with the release of the film version of Rain Fall, the author 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 (Dance of the Dragon) decided to pen his own screenplay. Eisler doesn’t have any hard feelings. “I feel great about the movie. It’s one of those things,” he concedes. “Max had his own vision for the kind of movie he wanted to make. 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.”
Another challenge was not alienating the book’s fans, who have their own ideas about how the action should be presented on film. “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.”
The writer also had to accept being on the sidelines during the shoot. “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, Eisler says, Jet Li was slated to play the character of Rain. “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. You need an actor who is completely bicultural and who has those chameleon characteristics that enable him to change to fit into the environment.”
Instead, filmmakers took a gamble and cast Japanese actor Kippei Shiina (Yomei, Spy Sorge). Relatively unknown to Western audiences, the 44-year-old Shiina is much younger than Rain (who is in his late 50s), and is not bilingual or bicultural. Gary Oldman plays the CIA station chief in Tokyo, and model-actress 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.
While it remains to be seen how overseas audiences will take to the film, John Rain is a hit with the locals—the first four books in the series have all been translated into Japanese. “Reviews have been terrific, really gratifying,” Eisler says. “I love Japan and Tokyo is my favorite city. You can’t miss that if you read my books.”
Certainly, local residents will recognize many of Rain’s haunts—Blue Note Tokyo, the Imperial Hotel, Ben’s Café, and 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,” he says. “They write about this mysterious Oriental city with strange food, men in white gloves, elevator girls… Those things are obvious and clichéd, and for Japanese audiences, boring. What interests me as a novelist is getting to the essence of things, whether it’s a character or place. What makes this coffeehouse Hatou what it is, for example?”