On Barry Eisler’s A Clean Kill in Tokyo

A Clean Kill in Tokyo Cover

I bought Barry Eisler’s A Clean Kill in Tokyo on a whim when it was recently on sale at Audible as part of the “Series Sale”, where they put on sale the first two or three books that part of a series. (Not a bad idea to hook people into eventually buying or using their credits on the remaining books.) I had never heard of Eisler, and at the risk of exposing my innate snobbery, I would normally never give these books the time of day, but the Tokyo setting and the “half-Japanese, half-American” protagonist had me intrigued. I was also not sufficiently put off by the quality of the narration afforded me by Audible’s sample, and seeing as they were priced at around $6 each, ended up buying the first three books in the series.

Eisler turned out to be more than competent in reading his own work, playing up the hard-boiled nature of his prose to good effect. I do admit to Googling Eisler before I hit the “Buy” button, and reading the phrase “…worked in Japan for Matsushita” on his Wikipedia page was enough to give me hope he wouldn’t be making some cringe-worthy pronunciation mistakes or “Japan is so weird”-ing Japan.

I instantly found the book a very likable experience. The book is written in the first person, and the main character (assassin for hire John Rain) is sufficiently jaded and heartless for my liking, wracked by demons caused by his upbringing — being bullied as a kid out of his element in small-town America after his father was killed when he was a child — or the Vietnam War, where he did appropriately nasty covert shit. (According to Eisler’s bio, he spent three years with the CIA training in covert activities before after university.) Yet he also has his assassin’s code (no hits on women or children, for example), loves jazz, and lets himself get involved with the daughter of one of his targets whose assassination on the Yamanote Line opens the novel.

The book’s narration is suffused with Rain’s inner thoughts and a running commentary on anything and everything seemingly. It feels a bit like Holden in A Catcher in the Rye, or Max Payne in the Rockstar video game series. The scene where he’s angling to accidentally run into jazz pianist Midori so that she doesn’t become wise to the fact that he’s been following her all this time, and their subsequent conversation, is one that particularly stands out. 

The book also goes fairly deep into the arcane politics of post-war LDP-dominated Japan, the rampant corruption and back-room dealing, and the intertwining of industry, mainly construction, the government, and the yakuza. While I understand the rough outlines of all that to know that Eisler knows of what he writes, a lot of it is so convoluted that it was hard to follow (the audiobook format is a bit to blame here I think). Eisler also delves far more into the shadier parts of American and CIA involvement in Vietnam that I would have expected, and having read my fair share of Vietnam War histories, this too felt spot on. 

The book is so well grounded in this political and historical milieu that it makes you start to wonder if what ought to be just plot points so the book stays in genre — that is, assassinations of government ministers meant to look like natural deaths, or the murdering of American print journalists so they can’t reveal any of the corruption (which of course the Japanese press wouldn’t touch) —  could actually be going on in today’s Tokyo. (On his website Eisler points to a New York Times story about devices that attack a target’s pacemaker so that the death looks natural. Yikes!)

Eisler ends the book with an audiobook-exclusive “author’s note” of sorts, and it’s delightful and not something I’ve ever heard before. He acknowledges that in two instances he took license with the location of a place, and directs us to his website for more ephemera about Tokyo and his books. His site is one of the better author sites I’ve seen, I have to say, with extras like “John Rain’s Top Ten Jazz Albums You Might Not Have Heard Of” and “Personal Safety Tips from Assassin John Rain”, as well as photos of Eisler from his Tokyo days. He also has a very in-depth page of errata which warms my heart for some unexplained reason. 

Highly recommended. I’m looking forward to starting the next John Rain book in the series soon.

Vivo! Beer + Dining Bar in Ikebukuro

Vivo entrance
The entrance to Vivo, adjacent to a Starbucks.

[Originally posted to my nascent “Japanese craft beer” blog — only two posts! — last October.]

Today I took advantage of having to go to Shinjuku for an errand to check out the well-regarded Vivo! Beer + Dining Bar in Ikebukuro on my way home. (Or did I take advantage of a desire to drink good beer to do the errand?)

Vivo! is most definitely a beer bar, with 20 different beers on tap as well as bottles of import beer to choose from. I was there on a Sunday around 4pm, and there were about five or six other customers, with a few more trickling in as it got closer to evening. The place is non-smoking with a cubby hole looking booth for people to have a puff, and there’s free wifi (ask one of the staff for the password).

Kin-oni Pale Ale
Kin-oni Pale Ale, in a “Regular” size glass

One thing I was ambivalent about were the sizes on offer, “Regular” which equates to 360ml, and “Half” which is 285ml, which was ¥150 cheaper than the Regular. In other words, whether you’re talking American or British pints, what’s on offer is neither. On the other hand, the prices did seems to reflect that you were getting less than a pint (at least compared to other places I’ve been to in high-rent areas like this one), and the smaller sizes can help to make even a high ABV IPA a bit more sessionable.

Of the 20 beers on tap, 14 of them were from Japanese, a great ratio if you ask me, especially when all with the exception of a Ebisu were from domestic craft breweries. Breweries like Sankt Gallen, Baird (which also makes a special IPA for Vivo), Coedo, Yoho, and Tamamura were represented, amongst others. (On the import side, you could get two kinds of Lagunitas, a Rogue, a Southern Tier, plus the ubiquitous Guinness.) You can see the full list of 20 (in Japanese and English) at Vivo!’s blog. Based on past blog posts, it would seem they change the lineup (slightly) every two weeks or so. Bottles were listed in the back of the menu, but I didn’t pay too much attention as I figured why go bottle when there are so many choices on tap.

For my first beer, I purposely chose something from a new-to-me brewery, in this case the Kin-Oni Pale Ale from Noboribetsu, a hot spring town about a hour from Sapporo in Hokkaido (and not a good enough web presence to link to, if I’m being honest). It was very good, well worth the ¥1000 yen I paid even though it wasn’t a full pint.

I did use the small size to rationalize getting another beer, and this time I chose the Harvest Ale from Southern Tier, a brewery from New York I’ve often heard of and seen in the shops but had yet to try. It was also rather tasty, though it didn’t knock my socks off the way the Kin-Oni did.

Vivo beer menu
More beer than you shake a stick at!

I did not order any food but judging from the menu it seemed reasonably priced, but can’t comment on anything like portions or taste. And speaking of the menu, I like how they have all 20 beers on tap spread over two pages, with a fair amount of information or commentary about each beer. While this is in Japanese, important things like the beer name, brewery, and beer style are printed in English, a nice plus.

Here’s a link to the location in Google Maps.

A quiet Sunday afternoon at Vivo!

Ramen shop in Nakano – Aoba

Ramen shop Aoba in Nakano

Ramen is one of those foods that exist beyond my understanding, simply because I can’t (or choose not to) eat food that contains red meat or chicken. (It should also be said that I’m not a huge fan of noodle soups like udon for example so I don’t feel like I’m missing so much.) So, I stand outside on occassion, especially when the shop is “famous,” and wonder a bit what all the fuss is about. This particular shop, in Nakano (one of Tokyo’s “Ramen Towns” apparently), is called Aoba and Naoko confirms that it is indeed famous and consistently in the top 10 of ramen establishments. I’ll leave those assessments to the aficionados but will chime in that it is certainly on my current short list of top 10 fascinating shop exteriors in Tokyo.

Click here for the series.