In the late 1980s, Japanese media ran a flurry of reports on an alarming shortage of brides in the country’s rural areas. Unable to find potential partners at home, bachelors in farming villages were searching for wives in mainland Asia — sometimes with support from their local governments, and often with significant sums changing hands.

There’s a lot that can go wrong with bride buying — an ethically queasy enterprise at the best of times — and in “Come On Irene,” most of it does. Adapted by director Keisuke Yoshida from Hideki Arai’s 1990s manga series, the film follows the exploits of a 42-year-old pachinko worker who lives with his senile father and overbearing mother in a dilapidated rustic backwater.

Iwao (Ken Yasuda) isn’t much of a catch, unless you consider an awkward demeanor and voracious porn habit to be positive traits, which might explain why he’s reached middle age without ever having a proper relationship. So when his attempts to hook up with a single mother end in disappointment — and prompt a furious argument with his parents — he storms off to the Philippines and returns with a young bride.

Come On Irene (Itoshi no Airiin)
Run Time 137 mins.
Language JAPANESE, Tagalog, English
Opens sept. 14

Irene (Natileigh Sitoy) may not speak any Japanese, but she’s keen to provide for her impoverished family back home, and the ¥3 million payment Iwao offers for her hand is a significant sweetener. Surrendering to her new husband’s sexual advances, however, is another matter entirely.

Things get off to an inauspicious start when the couple returns to Japan just in time for the funeral of Iwao’s dad, and his mother, Tsuru (Hana Kino), greets her new daughter-in-law by pointing a rifle in her face. This crude comedy of cultural errors soon veers into darker territory, as Irene attracts the attentions of a human trafficker (Yusuke Iseya), while Tsuru hatches a plot to find a more appropriate — which is to say, more Japanese — wife for her son.

Iwao, meanwhile, spends most of his time behaving like a complete ass. When he isn’t throwing thousand-yen notes at Irene and demanding sex, he’s forcing himself on a co-worker in a toilet cubicle or jerking off over a sleeping woman. He’s a rogue, and not of the lovable kind; I don’t think I’ve hated a protagonist this much since the unrepentant rapist Nao Omori played in Hideo Sakaki’s “Disregarded People,” another film that struggled to find much humor in its anti-hero’s awfulness.

This is Yoshida’s second movie of the year, after the self-penned “Thicker Than Water,” and it presents an equally cynical view of human relations. It’s also over half an hour longer than its predecessor and a lot nastier, though it never reaches the Grand Guignol heights that a brasher director like Sion Sono might have lifted it to.

“Come On Irene” is ultimately salvaged by its titular heroine, and Sitoy’s empathetic performance. Even when she’s dispensing sing-song phrases in broken Japanese, Irene suggests a keen intelligence at work. In one of the funnier scenes, Tsuru showers her with insults while maintaining a broad smile, assuming she can’t be understood — but Irene’s subtitled reply shows she knows just what’s going on.

Surrounded by grotesques, she’s the only character who commands much sympathy. If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from “Come On Irene,” it’s that immigrants are the least of Japan’s problems. It’s the locals we should be worried about.

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