Family Romance, LLC movie review: Werner Herzog explores the complex popularity of Japan's Rent-a-Family industry

Family Romance, LLC, now streaming on MUBI India, benefits from director Werner Herzog’s masterful execution.

Prathap Nair July 04, 2020 10:00:16 IST


Note: This review was first published when Family Romance, LLC premiered at Cannes Film Festival 2019.

Fueled by the need for human connections, even as it is constantly detaching itself from it, modern Japanese society is home to the bizarre phenomenon of renting proxy human beings - from friends to fathers - as stand-ins to cope with real-life situations. Japan’s rent-a-family industry has provided enough fodder for travel glossies and longform newspaper features over the years it’s practically a mainstream subject on Japan. More recently, a New Yorker story written by author and journalist Elif Batuman offered a bitingly authentic portrayal of this trend.

The idiosyncrasies of modern Japanese society may make for good copy and thousands of pageviews, but can this tricky subject be just as engaging as a full-fledged movie? German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who travelled to Japan on a family holiday, came upon one Yuichi Ishii’s rent a relative company Family Romance LLC and that is how the movie took shape.

The movie opens with Yuichi Ishii, who plays himself, accosting a schoolgirl Mahiro, in Tokyo’s Yoyogi park, claiming he is her long-last father. After initial hesitation from the girl, they connect over cherry-blossom selfies and feeding sparrows in the park. But the first twist in the tale drops when Ishii meets up with Mahiro’s mother to discuss the contract on playing her father and collecting the first cheque.

Family Romance LLC movie review Werner Herzog explores the complex popularity of Japans RentaFamily industry

A still from Family Romance, LLC.

At the crux of the movie is the business Family Romance LLC and the businessman Ishii who runs it. The movie lets the viewer into the bizarre business and the requests that the company plies with: a woman with a lottery addiction who needs a surprise for herself about a lottery win, a man who needs a stand-in for himself to be reprimanded by his boss for letting the trains run 20 second earlier and a family that needs a fake father for the daughter’s wedding. These hires are meant to fulfill social obligations, to fend off loneliness and sometimes even as stand-ins to take the blame for the customer.

These snippets fall into place to build a larger canvas, which is Ishii’s pretend relationship with Mahiro, for which he gets paid from her mother. We are never let in to Mahiro’s mind, on the other hand, making it impossible to know whether she’s playing him too.

Similarly, at times, the movie offers no insights into the distinctions between real and surrogate relationships and this serves as the reason for mild frustration on the trustworthiness of some characters and scenes. For instance, one is left to wonder whether Ishii’s relationship with his friend is real or the person is simply an actor listening to Ishii vent his frustration. This deliberate attempt to muddle reality comes at the cost of some head-scratching for the viewer but in retrospect, it’s also an effective commentary on the psyche of the whole system.

While no commentary has been made on the wackiness of this whole business, some introspection is nevertheless offered midway when Ishii realizes Mahiro has not been completely honest with him on her life. “I’m lying to Mahiro. She’s also lying to me. We’re both lying to each other,” he says helplessly to Mahiro’s mother. This is also one of the few scenes when the movie lets the viewer sneak a peek into Ishii’s character, outside his well-trained surrogate position for the numerous fake roles he plays in people’s real lives.

Family Romance, LLC benefits from Herzog’s masterful execution, which passively allows the plot to take its own course to develop. This is sometimes counterproductive as at times it feels like the movie could have spent a bit more time on the editing table for trimming a little more flab. Gorgeous visuals of Tokyo punctuate the movie, supplemented by Ernst Reijseger’s music.

Peppered with sometimes queasy vignettes on how the contemporary Japanese navigate their relationships, Family Romance LLC is like reading an odd Japanese short story. Only none of what is shown in the movie is fiction. Family Romance LLC will appeal to you if you like oddball movies. But a lingering aftertaste is all but indispensable. Not to mention, it is only the result of the subject matter at hand and little to do with Herzog’s execution.

Family Romance, LLC is now streaming on MUBI India.

Rating: ***

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