Werner Herzog's Family Romance, LLC reveals the closing gap between humans and artificial intelligence

Devansh Sharma

Sep 09, 2019 09:24:49 IST

South African cleric, Desmond Tutu, once famously said, "You don't choose your family." But German filmmaker Werner Herzog's Japanese film Family Romance, LLC seems to believe otherwise.

The film was initially screened at the Cannes Film Festival 2019, and later at the MAMI Year Round Programme in Mumbai recently. It opens as a sweet tale of reunion between a girl, Mahiro, and Ishii, who seems to be her father. He recognises her amidst a scattered group of teenagers at a Japanese park and asks her, "You're Mahiro, right?" She is not entirely convinced that he is her estranged father, but eventually gives in to his persistent claims. They go on to bond over watching cherry blossoms peak, and clicking pictures with a camera.

 Werner Herzogs Family Romance, LLC reveals the closing gap between humans and artificial intelligence

Mahiro and Ishii in a still from Family Romance, LLC

However, in the very crucial next scene, the crux of the story is revealed. Mahiro's mother meets Ishii, only to be handed over the bills for "food and sundries" that he incurred during his time with Mahiro. Minutes before, she signed a cheque to Ishii, and asked him whether he had twitched his eyes like Mahiro's father used to in her childhood. "If I twitch my eyes, then it becomes clear we're putting up an act. And what we, at Family Romance do, should not come out," Ishii says.

For the ones still clueless, Family Romance, headed by Ishii, is an organisation that rents out actors masquerading as family members in Japan. Ishii posing as Mahiro's father forms only the spine of the film, which goes on to portray other instances where the firm has come to the rescue of those in need.

The mother of a bride hires a husband from Family Romance, LLC, so that he can walk her daughter down the aisle on her big day. The bride is also fully aware of the fact that her "father" has been rented. She even reveals, contrary to her mother's claims, that her father is not terribly unwell, but is actually too drunk to attend the wedding.

Such instances of pretending to be a complete family not only cater to emotional needs, but social ones as well. The institution of family in Japanese society, like in India, is given immense importance, as opposed to the West, which primarily encourages individualism. Mahiro may have been bullied at school because her father was estranged from the family. Similarly, the pressing need for a father on a girl's wedding day, much like the 'need' to feed hundreds of people on the occasion — even if that amounts to spending one's savings of a lifetime — stems from certain social pressures and precedents followed for generations.

The scope of Family Romance, LLC, however, is not just limited to renting out family members. Its services are also availed for recreating special moments, or avoiding confrontation at work. In one of the film's scenes, a woman approaches the firm in an attempt to 'surprise' her own self, by having someone posing as her family turn up at her doorstep to inform her about her lottery win. The character explains that she only wanted the special moment of when she discovered she had won the lottery to be recreated again, though by actors working for Family Romance.

In another interesting scene, a man hires Ishii to fill in for him, and inform his employer that he had committed a blunder at the workplace, which is a bullet train station. Ishii is scolded and threatened by the employer, to which he bows down in response, while the real miscreant looks on. Clearly, the firm even provides relief to ones who are too frightened to face the consequences of mistakes committed by them in the past.

Herzog's vision would have been lauded if the film was, as perceived by many, a dystopian take on where society is headed with an excess of wealth at people's disposal, and the opportunity to mint more money becoming a cakewalk. But some research will show you that a company named Family Romance, LLC already exists in Japan, and the film is merely a bouquet of the various situations the organisation has experienced in the past few years. Hence, what was once dystopian, is now reality.

Last year, a popular news story in The New Yorker exposed Japan's 'rent-a-family-member' industry to the world, which has several other players besides just this one firm. A number of organisations exist in the country, providing services to those who have enough money, but haven't entirely managed to defy the needs and demands of its traditional society. The article covers everything about the phenomenon — from why Japan conventionally feels the need to nurture complete families, to how that has transformed into a full-fledged profit-making industry.

In fact, the article extends its purview to other Japanese players in the industry, including Hiroki Terai's Ikemeso Takkyubin, or the company that rents out 'attractive men' to wipe the tears of crying Japanese women. Terai coined the phrase 'rui-katsu', which translates to 'communal crying' — a near antithesis to the 'laughter therapy' employed by various clubs across the world, where groups of people are made to laugh out loud together. In Japan, people can actually pay someone to make them cry.

Since human beings have managed to harden their emotions while running the rat-race of intensely commodified lives, Ikemeso Takkyubin is entrusted with the job of infiltrating those self-imposed layers. The firm is expected to stir the emotions within, so as to make the person cry and help her acknowledge and come to terms with her losses and regrets.

Clearly, these organisations are making hay while Japan undergoes a severe social crisis. Its society is gradually replacing emotions with transactions, rejecting the very traits that make them human. However, this shift towards a capitalist, non self-reliant society, is not exclusive to Japan; it is happening all over world, including India.

A booming tech industry employing a large section of the tech-savvy youth, coupled with projects like Make in India, results in a mobile app for every odd job out there in the country. For example, Rapido, a Bengaluru-based app, can help you escape an impossible traffic jam on a two-wheeler, while another employee can park your car at a location of your choice. Last month, the on-demand delivery service app, Dunzo, launched in Mumbai. It allows you to 'order' an employee of the company to carry out concierge services — from transporting packages from one end of the city to another, to buying and getting goods of your choice delivered to your doorstep.



In Family Romance, LLC, a scene shows Ishii inquiring into a plush hotel run mostly by robots, including front-desk operations. "You can't determine what's happening in a robot's head," the owner of the hotel tells Ishii. This instance is also borrowed from real life, as artificial intelligence in Japan is gradually taking over its economy, much like machines did after industrialisation. However, it is the extent of such technological invasion that's alarming, especially when society is busy getting more automated and robotised. In Japan, artificial intelligence has reached a point where now there is even a robot priest named Goto at the Buddhist Kodaiji temple in Kyoto.

Evidently, humankind and artificial intelligence have assumed trajectories in opposite directions, with each taking turns at feeding off and emulating the other, thereby revealing a great deal about the world we are slowly arriving at. Our 'futuristic' worlds are merely euphemisms for resolute capitalism, which do not have space for interpersonal warmth, and the organic fear and joy of leading a life with all its consequences.

All images from Twitter.

Updated Date: Sep 11, 2019 10:18:51 IST