Hideki Arai’s 1990s manga series Come on Irene (Itoshi no Irene) addressed the shortage of brides in the rural areas of Japan, melding comedy, drama and darker thriller hues into its story – there is no wonder that it attracted Keisuke Yoshida, a Japanese filmmaker whose previous projects successfully combined those same elements. In fact, the overall tone of his live-action adaptation Come on Irene resembles his most successful project to date, Hime-anole (2016), a romantic black comedy that halfway or so into the story changed gears to become a fully-fledged crime drama, which Keisuke Yoshida also adapted from the manga of the same name. His hand seems to be truly apt at picking projects that will take the viewers on a ride they did not fully expect.
The story of Come on Irene starts out as fairly simple. Iwao (Ken Yasuda) lives in a small town in the middle of nowhere, with his elderly parents. His father is senile and his mother is overly-controlling, trying her best to find her Iwao the “perfect” Japanese girl for a bride. Iwao himself is far from being perfect, however. He is 42 and works at a pachinko parlour; he is also perpetually horny, frequenting a nearby brothel with female Filipino workers when he’s not awkwardly trying to seduce his co-worker who is a single mother.
After a fight with his parents, Iwao disappears, only to return some time later with Irene (Nats Sitoy), a wife he bought in the Philippines with his life savings. Irene agreed to being married off so she can support her impoverished family, but still dreams of finding love. What neither Iwao nor Irene expect upon getting to Iwao’s home is showing up in the middle of his father’s funeral, with his mother Tsuru losing it upon hearing that Irene is Iwao’s wife, promptly aiming a loaded rifle at Irene’s face. Iwao’s life doesn’t get any better when his new wife uses every excuse in the book to avoid him getting what he believes he paid for.
Even so, Iwao slowly starts to fall for his bubbly, happy-go-lucky wife and Irene works hard to make her new situation work. But Tsuru starts to plot to replace Irene with a Japanese girl who seems to fit her standards for an appropriate wife, and a Yakuza human trafficker (Yusuke Iseya) with connections to the brothel sets his eye on Irene… And what started out as a black comedy with romance elements gets flipped into an entirely different, deeply dark territory.
There are some typical Japanese cinematic elements in Come on Irene, with some situations completely out of the ballpark and as unrealistic as it gets, but many elements of the film veer far away from the usual; the dialogue is direct, unusually crude and explicit (cue Iwao’s character), and the narrative takes the viewers into head-spinning dark places. As much as he is a fictional character, there is an uncanny realism to Iwao even as his anti-hero-ness gets taken to new lows – with him throwing money at Irene, demanding sex, or with him generally behaving like a sex-crazed animal not only with her, but also with other women. Even if there are moments in which Iwao’s actions stretch to either be slightly pitiful or slightly funny, his character ultimately comes off as someone completely unlikable. Given that this was the goal, Ken Yasuda gets the full points for his acting.
The Yakuza and rifle-wielding Japanese mother aside, as far-fetched as some of the situations seem, some of the notes of Iwao’ and Irene’s relationship strike too close to the truth, making a viewer cringe in earnest. There are many moments that paint a difficult-to-watch picture of what a cross-cultural marriage would be like when the balance of power is on the buyer’s side – when the marriage starts as a contract that has a buyer and a person’s life and freedom are given a price. This adds value to the story that is both merciless to its characters and to its audience.
As it progresses, the movie gets increasingly harder to watch, all the way to its completely unexpected ending, but there is still one character that offers balance to everything else – Irene. A girl who doesn’t speak Japanese but carries a dictionary around until she learns, who tries her best to approach people with a smile, who is the sacrificial lamb that enables the support of her family, but still dares to dream – who stands her ground and still tries hard to make the best out of her life. Nats Sitoy did a splendid job, channeling a strong character that shines through all of the film’s darkness.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Star Sands, Inc