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Sunday, Jan. 26, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Rambo rides again on the mean streets of Tokyo


RAIN FALL, by Barry Eisler. G.P. Putnam's Sons: New York, 2002, 306 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

What's it like to open a book and read an account of yourself being gunned down on the streets of Akasaka?

"It's a legitimate concern," admits Forbes' Tokyo bureau chief Benjamin Fulford, an investigative journalist who has learned to watch for warning signs that he's on the verge of displeasing a powerful, ruthless organization.

Once, Fulford said, a yakuza boss actually threatened to convert him into kamaboko (a staple food made from processed fish).

While Fulford remains among the living and busy rattling the powers that be with stories in Forbes, "Franklin Bulfinch," his fictitious namesake (note how the initials are cleverly transposed) gets gunned down in "Rain Fall" while trying to obtain data that compromises Japan's Liberal Democratic Party in the worst possible way. That aside, even when their contents are reasonably original, there's something about potboiler novels that makes them appear derivative.

Take John Rain, the protagonist in "Rain Fall": a half-Caucasian, half-Japanese master assassin for hire who is a martial arts expert and Vietnam veteran. Rain incorporates attributes of David Morrell's twisted Viet-vet John Rambo of cinema fame; Trevanian's icy professional hit man Nikolai Hel in the 1979 novel "Shibumi"; and Nicholas Linnear, the Eurasian hero of Eric Van Lustbader's 1980 potboiler, "The Ninja."

While Linnear and Hel are at least rewarded by their creators with some of the steamiest sex this side of the Pacific, Rain's fun is more limited. He doesn't cruise Harajuku in a pricey sports car, or hang out at casinos sipping vodka martinis and playing chemin de fer. The villains he whacks are pretty much his peers in the same profession, who just happen to be getting paid by the other side. Rain kills people because he's good at it, and because it brings him a comfortable, if not respectable, livelihood. To assist him in his endeavors, he employs a sidekick named Harry, a computer geek who can hack into anything to obtain the information he seeks.

The Tokyo that provides the setting for author Barry Eisler's tale is portrayed as Asian East Berlin, a perilous place where phones are bugged, cloak-and-dagger types regularly take pot shots at each other, and you need to look over your shoulder every time you board the train.

Yasuhiro Kawamura wasn't cautious in this regard, and as the story begins, is fatally scrooched by Rain, equipped with a high-tech electronic gizmo that shatters his heart, while aboard the Yamanote line between Harajuku and Yoyogi stations.

Kawamura, a high-ranking bureaucrat, was getting ready to spill some damaging information to the Forbes bureau chief. Now he's dead, and the computer disk containing the information he stole is missing, forcing the contending parties to scramble to recover it.

But Rain doesn't know this yet; he's finished his lethal task and, with his paycheck in the mail, heads for a Roppongi night spot to unwind over a drink. There, the club's female proprietor introduces him to the charming Midori, a virtuoso jazz pianist who by incredible coincidence happens to be the daughter of the man he'd just murdered.

Rain's acute senses in the smoky club warn him that Midori is being tailed, and perhaps out of a sense of guilt over killing her father, he wreaks mayhem to rescue her from several assailants who think she possesses the missing data.

Out of a desire to protect Midori, Rain locks horns with the security police, a group of nasty rightists and finally winds up turning against those who paid him to kill Kawamura -- the CIA. The Americans, led by an old rival Rain had known while working as an operative in Vietnam, prove even more ruthless in their pursuit of LDP dirt than the Japanese who were trying to cover it up. The story climaxes in a violent showdown at the main gate of Yokosuka Navy Base. Rain survives, but finds himself detained by the Japanese police.

As an incentive to let Rain off the hook for several killings, Tatsuhiko Ishikura, a top cop at the National Police Agency, proposes an alliance.

"You are samurai, Rain-san, but samurai cannot be samurai without a master."

"What are you trying to tell me, Tatsu?"

"My battle with what plagues Japan is far from over . . . I need you with me."

"You don't understand, Tatsu. You don't get burned by one master and just find another. The scars go too deep."

Does our modern-day ronin (masterless samurai) prevail? We know he does because the dust jacket says Eisler is at work on his second Rain novel. If he maintains the pace, it will be nice to see the return of this literary tradition -- the hard-boiled tough guy on Tokyo's mean streets -- which to me evokes nostalgia for the days when Earl Norman's famous paperback series "Kill Me" (in Roppongi, Ginza, Shimbashi, Yoshiwara, etc.) adorned the revolving rack at the old Sanno Hotel bookstore.

Mark Schreiber is a devotee of mystery and adventure fiction set in Asia.


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