Family Romance, LLC is the name of a real company based in Tokyo that specialises in renting out family members. For the film, its founder, Yuichi Ishii, has been cast as himself. The backbone of the story concerns 12-year-old Mahiro, whose mother has hired Yuichi to pose as her long-absent father.
Family Romance, LLC
As far as Werner Herzog is concerned, his new film Family Romance, LLC is a drama. Yet almost everything about it screams documentary — starting with that acronym in the title, which stands for Limited Liability Company and puts us firmly in mind of a business. Bureaucracy; factual matters. One genre is used to undermine the other, and in service of one of the film’s central themes: how much of this is real?
"Sitting on a bench, Mahiro is reuniting with her father after more than a decade. But for Yuichi, this is just another day at the office"
On a busy promenade, Yuichi waits patiently in his immaculate suit, while Mahiro scuttles past multiple times staring at him, shrunk down in her hoodie. She covertly-not-so-covertly takes a photo of Yuichi on her phone, and so begins their meeting. Awkward and painful at first, the mood lifts beneath the cherry blossom in a nearby park. Sitting on a bench, Mahiro is reuniting with her father after more than a decade. But for Yuichi, this is just another day at the office.
We catch glimpses of the office’s other daily interactions, too. New clients sign up. Family Romance’s services are required at a wedding — one ‘father of the bride’, please! (The bride’s real father, a disgraceful alcoholic, has been banned from the ceremony.) A railway worker facing disciplinary action hires Yuichi to take the fall for him. In perhaps the most outlandish rental, Yuichi and co. turn up on the doorstep of a lottery winner and wave around a huge, novelty cheque, so that she can relive that life-changing experience one more time.
All this unfolds in the spirit of fly-on-the-wall curiosity and via the wobbly, transfixed gaze of a hand-held camera (operated by Herzog himself). Shot with minimal repeat takes, many of the scenes feel snatched like gifts, an endearing stiltedness favoured over mechanical narrative drive. Stylistically, Herzog finds a sweet spot between awkward and awestruck — which is a mood one suspects would colour much of the rent-a-family industry.
Although the film is scripted, Herzog makes previsions for planned spontaneity. He sets up his specific scenarios, which of course are drawn from real life, and then the actors are given considerable wiggle room (to the extent that Herzog opted not to have a translator present while shooting.) Again, the director’s method mirrors his subject; Yuichi is surely a master of improvisation.
A similar kind of planned spontaneity is a core tenet of psychodrama, a therapeutic approach developed by Jacob L. Moreno, in which patients explore internal conflicts by acting them out with other people on stage. Moreno believed that, by acting based on impulse, patients would discover new solutions to their problems, alternative ways to inhabit their roles in life.
I suspect most Western viewers will see Yuichi and Mahiro’s burgeoning relationship with something like psychodrama as an emotional touchstone; that, as well as Freudian ‘transference’ (an unconscious redirection of feelings a patient has about one person on to another.) Yuichi and Mahiro might not be real father and daughter, their relationship is founded on a whopping lie, but does that have to mean that none of the feelings between them are authentic? Clearly, the situation is deemed valuable — otherwise Mahiro’s mother wouldn’t be footing the bill.
"All this unfolds in the spirit of fly-on-the-wall curiosity and via the wobbly, transfixed gaze of a hand-held camera"
Freud is ever-present in the film — at least circumstantially. Yuichi’s company is named after a 1909 essay of Freud’s titled ’The Family Romance of Neurotics’. Here, Freud, writing on children who believe their mum and dad are imposters and that their real parents are nobles or royals, suggests this fantasy is a way of dealing with the painful experience of disillusionment to come, an inevitable step on the journey to independence. Certainly, a playful name for Yuichi’s company.
For Freud, the unconscious is already a kind of theatre, full of ‘imaginative stories’, in which family members, like actors, perform their ‘parts’. Artifice, then, is an integral part of real life. Still, why is the idea of rental relatives so strange, even slightly upsetting? Does authenticity hold so much sway over Western culture? Should it?
In her 2018 New Yorker essay on Japan’s rent-a-family industry (which includes discussion of Family Romance), Elif Batuman writes that, in Japanese society, ‘rental relatives are often explained with reference to the binary of honne and tatemae, or genuine individual feelings and societal expectations.’ Often ‘the concealment of authentic honne behind conventional tatemae’, Batuman observes, is viewed as unselfish and socially generous, rather than deceptive.
I wonder if, aside from deception, another form of resistance to the rent-a-family scenario is that the service is monetised. Something deemed sacred is sullied by its association with the market. We’ve internalised the story that money can’t buy love. Often, ironically, this story is told to us by the market itself (think of the double-bind in the MasterCard slogan: ‘There are some things money can’t buy, for everything else there’s MasterCard.’)
"In Western society, the heteronormative nuclear family is not only still widely considered the ‘norm’, but the basic unit of production"
In Western society, the heteronormative nuclear family is not only still widely considered the ‘norm’, but the basic unit of production. From John Major’s Back to Basics campaign to David Cameron’s Marriage Tax allowance — and take your pick from any number of regressive Republican policies since the 1980s advanced under the cloak of amorphous ‘family values’ — familialism is used to push political and economic agendas. Perhaps what is troubling about the rent-a-family industry is not only the possible deception between individuals, but the mass deception it touches upon: the idea that the family could not possibly be bound up with money changing hands, when of course it is.
Back to Yuichi and Mahiro sitting on that park bench, with pink cherry blossom falling at their feet. They watch a group of boys Live-Action Role-Playing. Herzog is giving us a parallel. Larpers are as diverse as their medium; I’m sure many of us consider it strange to see adults apparently playing make-believe, and these ones are deep in character, samurais fighting, dying, committing seppuku (ritualised suicide by disemboweling.) Larpers build a community based around a shared narrative they create. What’s so unusual about that? Herzog seems to be asking. What’s so different about a family?
By Sammi Gale