Rain Fall

Original title
Rein Foru Ame no Kibe
Japanese title
  • レイン・フォール 雨の牙
Running time
111 minutes
13 July 2009
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How should we approach a film like Rain Fall? Here we have an international co-production from Sony Pictures, set in Japan, the cast and dialog are mostly Japanese, eight of the nine producers attached are Japanese, the primary market for the film is evidently Japan, while the original story was penned by Barry Eisler, an American, then adapted and directed by Max Mannix (co-author of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata), an Australian. How should we speak about such a film in relation to Japan or, for that matter, any other nation?

A former U.S. Special Forces operative gone independent, Japanese-American John Rain (Kippei Shiina) is a professional hit man based in Tokyo. His latest target is a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Land and Infrastructure (MLIT) named Kawamura. Having just felled three ministers in a row, Rain has become something of an expert in ending political careers, always with the finesse to affect an apparent suicide or death by natural causes. Kawamura is in Rain's sights because he holds evidence of corruption at the highest levels of the Japanese government, all of which is contained in a tiny memory stick.

What Rain doesn't know yet is that the CIA is onto him. Tokyo bureau chief Holzer (Gary Oldman) has agency intelligence on Rain's recent visit to North Korea, presumably to work for "the other team". Holzer also knows about Kawamura, and suspects that Rain wants to nab the memory stick and pass it across the DMZ. In the hands of the North Koreans, such evidence could be used in a game of international blackmail that would undermine the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

With a display of technological fanfare that seems to marshal half of the surveillance cameras in Tokyo, Holzer's team hits the ground running, to intercept Rain and recover the sensitive data. Naturally, nothing quite goes as planned, and soon the yakuza and the Tokyo Police department are after Rain as well. Everybody wants the memory stick, and most are ready to kill for it. Along the way, Kawamura's daughter (Kyoko Hasegawa) gets caught in the crossfire, and Rain takes flight with her, moving from assassin to protector, from predator to prey.

If this story sounds familiar - the CIA in pursuit of a rogue operative, on the run with a beautiful woman - indeed, the parallels with The Bourne Identity are unmistakable. The difficulty with entering into this territory is that many in the audience will expect a high-end thriller replete with car chases and big-budget spectacle, and Rain Fall just isn't that sort of film. In fact, deliberately not.

In part, this has nothing to do with the direction or budget. Tokyo is a notoriously difficult city for filming exteriors. If the car chases through Shibuya in an exorbitant monster like The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift had to be filmed in Los Angeles, we can understand the pragmatic reasons for noir-style foot chases in Rain Fall. They are, it should be added, truer to the experience of the city. Yet while the studied avoidance of explosions and spectacle provide a refreshing alternative to the CGI arms race of contemporary thrillers, these don't completely allow Rain Fall to side-step our expectations of the genre.

Yet, there are deeper ambitions here. Whereas Bourne is an international thriller à la 007, Rain Fall seemingly aspires to be a rarer beast - a geopolitical thriller. The Europe of The Bourne Identity has no real political significance. From the assassins in Rome and Spain, to the chases through Paris and a romantic coda on Mykonos, Bourne offers travel-poster décor in the grand capital-hopping tradition of the Bond franchise. At a political level, the conflict is merely an internal affair, a family feud at the CIA that's exploded from inside an advertisement for American Express.

By contrast, Rain Fall shuns this form of business-class exoticism, grounding its conflict in a contemporary Japan enmeshed with foreign powers. The story takes a raw nerve of Japanese politics -- the endless construction scandals and general corruption that plague the reigning LDP -- and warms up the audience to the idea that extraordinary measures are justified to resolve the issue. Despite the film's gloss, there is no airbrushing of this political reality. When the Tokyo police get on Rain's trail, the grizzled lead detective (Emoto) remarks: "He killed corrupt politicians. We should reward him for that." What Japan needs, this film bluntly tells us, is more guys like John Rain.

As a Japanese-American konketsu, Rain embodies the complexity of the transpacific relationship. He's a cypher for the geopolitical conflict that underpins the street-level drama. The story advances a claim about Japan as an object of imperial aggression (after all, what's at stake in the serial murder of high-ranking politicians?), but then demurely backs away. This hesitation is echoed in the treatment of Rain himself. Through the relationship with Kawamura's daughter Midori, an opportunity arises to discover more about him, to learn how he became who he is, but this slips quietly by. Barry Eisler, himself a former CIA man, adapted his novel for Sony Pictures, but Sony in turn went with director Mannix's adaptation. One wonders how Eisler's screenplay would have delineated the character of John Rain.

The production of Rain Fall also involves a certain geopolitical dimension, for the film trades on the significance of the foreign gaze, i.e., of a Western director gazing at Japan. The Japanese publicity material for Rain Fall states explicitly that it shows an unknown Tokyo: "the city we have never seen". In the eyes of director Mannix, we are told, the quotidian familiar has become a strange, new place. Both novel and film depict Tokyo as it is seen by foreigners, but ones who also know the land. The significance of this positioning also resonates in producer Satoru Iseki's remarks that while recent box office statistics suggest that domestic audiences are becoming tired of Hollywood blockbusters, and while Rain Fall was conceived to have different production values, nevertheless he could not find a Japanese director who he felt would be faithful to the material.

Audiences identify with heroes who are killers because they represent justice or, more often, revenge. Finally, though, Rain's relationship with justice is uncertain. As with many screen hit men, we are invited into his shadow world of murder and intrigue on the basis of a certain fantasy. Fans of big-budget action will likely not be satisfied, but Rain Fall begins, albeit tentatively, to chart the territory for a different sort of thriller. In a future installment, one can hope that it might press further.