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Family Romance, LLC

Released 2019. Director: Werner Herzog

IF YOU'D LOVE DEARLY FOR YOUR FATHER TO WALK YOU DOWN THE AISLE at your wedding but he’s ill, unable or even dead, what could you do? If you’d like to bring a girlfriend or boyfriend to your work party but you don’t have one, what could you do? In Japan, you can rent someone to be your dad, mum, boyfriend, girlfriend, just about anyone.

In Family Romance, LLC, Werner Herzog introduces us to Yuichi Ishii, who runs a business renting out actors and also takes on a role himself. Ishii has been hired by a wealthy woman to be the father of her 12-year-old daughter Mahiro, who hasn’t seen her father since he disappeared ten years ago.

Mahiro is shy and quiet meeting her “father” but gradually warms to him as the two continue to meet regularly. They go to the parks to take pictures of cherry blossoms, ride paddleboats on a lake, talk about home and school like regular father and daughter. Ishii is committed to his job. The role may be fake but his sincerity is real.

He visits Mahiro’s mother and reports on their activities, even dispensing parental advice. As a side gig, he accompanies Mahiro’s mother on her trip to consult a medium (to get in touch with Mahiro’s real father).

Ishii is also heavily involved in other rental assignments. A woman overwhelmed with happiness when she won the lottery wants to relive the experience so she hires Ishii’s actors to re-enact the moment. A woman with a fantasy of being a celebrity hires Ishii’s team to pose as paparazzi following her through a busy Tokyo street as she struts and poses, attracting the attention of curious passers-by.

Family Romance, LLC comes across very much like a documentary but it is a work of fiction, though the business is real. Ishii is playing a version of himself, along with a cast of non-professional actors using a partly improvised script. Herzog’s method is almost clinical, his narrative captures the interactions of the “actors” and their clients and the photography and edit strives for realism. The blurred distinction between fiction and reality makes the movie even more beguiling in its depiction of a thriving business that clearly feeds a peculiar need.

What would sociologists make of all this? Has anyone looked into the ethical implications of this rental business? Evidently, the thirst for companionship in a hyper-driven and time-poor megacity like Tokyo compels some to seek a stand-in boyfriend or girlfriend for conversations, as a plus-one at a social event, or for practice in human interactions.

Herzog shows us there’s more to that. The business caters for wish fulfilment, as in the case of the lottery lady and the celebrity wannabe. Money can buy you a make-believe world, even if it’s just a short while. The most bizarre scene involves Ishii acting as a railway employee being reprimanded by his superior while the actual employee stands next to them silently watching his actor-replacement bowing and apologising for his own error. Taking responsibility for your own action, it seems, is no longer valued in the workplace and punishment can be out-sourced.

Back to the main “plot”, if we can describe it as such, Ishii’s role as Mahiro’s father becomes untenable when Mahiro’s mother begins to develop feelings for her fake husband. Before either of them crosses the line, Ishii initiates to end the transaction, even suggesting a staged funeral service to farewell his character properly.

Through all this, we never find out if Mahiro harbours any suspicion, whether she believes the man is her real father returned, or whether she’s just playing along. The adults who hire actors like Ishii to enact a scene or play some character, fictional or real, understand the difference. But to wilfully deceive a child is something else. Is it better to give her a bonding experience with a fake father than no father at all? What is the value of the genuine article if we can accept a fake copy? Does a loved one’s identity still hold any value if we can hire someone to play the part?

Remember The Truman Show where Jim Carrey’s character discovers all the people in his life are actors? One can pretty much do something similar now, surround yourself with characters of your choice for as long as you can afford them.

At one point Ishii visits a hotel staffed by lifelike robots which he finds fascinating. In the context of this movie, the scene is like a preamble to a plausible future when synthetic humans will replace real humans, when it’s the role we're after, not necessarily the actual person. A version of the future close to what we glimpsed in an episode of Black Mirror.

Family Romance, LLC has a thin plot which is basically a one-line description of a situation. The questions it engenders, however, are varied and intriguing. Herzog fictionalises a curious phenomenon but a straight-out documentary would probably provide a deeper understanding if we could hear from the actors and clients, their reasoning and arguments on filling a void with a method that’s simultaneously fulfilling and deceiving.


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