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The Rented and the Real: Werner Herzog's "Family Romance, LLC"

The lies society tells itself in order to function become commodities in Werner Herzog's latest exploration of the limits of human behavior.
Kelley Dong
Werner Herzog's Family Romance, LLC is having a free virtual preview on MUBI in many countries on July 3, 2020. Following this preview, it will be showing exclusively on MUBI in the many countries in the series Luminaries.
The curious staging of Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC., can be best understood through an event that occurred in November of 2018, when Japanese public broadcasting station NHK aired a documentary special on Family Romance, a family rental company founded by Yuichi Ishii. The 30-minute special featured a man who hires a wife and kids after his wife’s death. To the audiences’ dismay, however, NHK—and the New Yorker, which also produced a lengthy profile on Ishii—later found that even the man himself (including other clients featured) was an employee of Family Romance. In its follow-up investigation of the matter, the Wall Street Journal reported that phone calls to Ishii and his company were left unanswered, and the address listed on his website was that of a building with no such business listed as a tenant. The eager customer, as it turns out, was not the widower on TV but the reporters documenting the phenomenon (whose editing of the footage into the sequence also functions as another process of mythmaking) for viewers at home. Although Herzog’s film (which stars Ishii as himself) completed production and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival prior to the allegations, Family Romance LLC elicits an unease caused by the inability to distinguish the actor from the non-actor, and the implication that this difference is an invented one. But the paid lies of the rented person are only externalizations of the daily fabrications of friends, family, and workers whose lives are presumably more real. 
The fictionalized Yuichi Ishii of the film is also the founder of Family Romance, a middle-aged man of chameleonic disposition and unembellished good looks. The opening of the film introduces Yuichi already in character, playing the estranged father of 12-year-old Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto), a man who has re-married and returned to start over with the child he left one decade ago. His characterization is partly based on a packet of information provided by the girl's mother. On the day of their first arranged meeting, Mahiro passes quickly by and snaps a photo of Yuichi, securing a lasting relic of what she suspects might be too good to be true. Both parties interact with reticence, awkwardly fidgeting and stumbling through rushed conversation summing the last ten years of separation. Herzog mans the camera in circles around the pair, usually requiring several stiff adjustments to frame his shot; the rough movements of what some characterize as the amateurish technique of the casual vlogger are then, in post-production, coupled with oversaturation—flushed cheeks and held hands are perpetually rose-tinted, white walls are coated in a teal sheen. For this reason, many scenes in the film have the unsettling appearance of a movie masquerading as a vlog, which it very well may be, or, at least when I watched the film on one sleepless night, a dream experienced in the third-person, in which you feel especially sensorially present and yet totally unacknowledged. Though tight-lipped and selective in what she tells her father, Mahiro's uncovering gaze moves across Yuichi's face again and again, searching for the father she never knew.
The title of the film is in reference to a 1909 Sigmund Freud essay after which Ishii fondly named his company. The "family romance," according to Freud, originates from the child's "original affection for his parents," an overvaluation later dented by discovery of the parents' shortcomings. To placate their dissatisfaction, the child develops the notion that they are in fact a step-child or an adopted child, and that these parents with which they are so disappointed will eventually become replaced with people of a higher social status or grander standing. In pricing the possibility of different social relations, the company offers a commodity that treats the family romance as consumer desire, expanding the romance to include the replacement of nearly every social relation beyond the family unit. Herzog does not apply the Freudian concept so literally or directly onto Mahiro and Yuichi's relationship, but rather as a backdrop of a universal suspicion (of one's given or assigned social relations from birth) and resulting longing (for a chosen and deliberate social relation) that may be exploited by the involvement of capital.
We learn that Mahiro is not the only one under Yuichi's spell, as their regular day trips are but one set of shifts in a regular rotation of his performances. Between his part-time fathering, he arranges meetings between other actors and their own clientele, and shows up to his own appointments, including as a fake paparazzi for an aspiring influencer who hopes to catch the attention of onlookers, and as part of a lottery committee hired by a woman who wishes to feel the rush of victory again. By presenting these projects in repetition, Herzog separates the rental service from its oddities and reduces its demands to those regularly demanded of workers. The process of hiring an actor for such a wide variety of purposes is both complicated and dull: there is the preparation and the paperwork, the performance itself and the unpredictable toil that improvisation on the clock entails; and the mental and emotional negotiations (with oneself and with the employer) that the worker must reconcile long after the shift is over, the last of which is Herzog's utmost subject of interest. The cold irony of the rental performance as a job is laid bare with one case in which Yuichi receives the harsh rebuke of a client's manager on his behalf, kneeling in sorrow as one worker playing another.
At the sight of payments handed back and forth, one might be jarred by the blatant deception of the practice, brushing it off as what Wester Wagenaar describes as "wacky Japan" against the current of Western normalcy. (Herzog does appear once, his camera peeking from the corner of a photobooth, reminding us that the Japan we are seeing is also, in part, a fiction of his making. ) And the potential ramifications of lying to a young girl abandoned by her father, an anecdote relayed by Ishii in both the New Yorker and on NHK, are not diminished. But Family Romance, LLC simultaneously takes to task the apodictic assertion that the biological father offers a more truthful and authentic, and therefore morally upstanding, bond. Between the rented and the real, categories that Herzog juggles throughout, does either require sincerity—and is sincerity, such as that of a sincere father or a sincere paparazzi, automatically a moral good? What strains of insincerity and inauthenticity are enabled within our expectations of friends and family, employers and employees, posed as necessary to the maintenance of already strained relationships?
For Yuichi, these questions, and as mentioned before, the ethical qualms of his assignment, only emerge as inner conflict when he unwittingly starts to feel paternal warmth towards Mahiro. (In an interview with The Atlantic, the actual Yuichi explains the dilemma of a similar job: "When I am acting with [the daughter], I don't really feel that I love her, but when the session is over and I have to go, I do feel a little sad.") With Mahiro, his attempts at conversation, initially a mechanism of surveillance on her mother's behalf, become signs of personal curiosity and a wish to win her favor. He begins to speak on Mahiro's behalf to her mother—"I think you could give her more freedom," he says, noting that Mahiro would like (and should have) full control over her own Instagram. But when describing the posts on Mahiro's Instagram account, specifically those from a memorable trip to Bali, her mother corrects him—they were taken at a local beach. The actor's budding attachment and shy steps into the shoes of a family member are met with an especially ominous realization: that to be in a family is also to lie and to be lied to. "We're both lying to each other," he mutters, caught in a web of trickery despite presuming himself to be in control of the situation. And yet, if divorced from its surrounding context, the scene—a mother and father compare stories and find out that their daughter is lying to one parent—looks as if pulled from any mundane family history.
In Shunji Iwai's three-hour epic A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (2016), the rental family service is at first an anonymously-run online agency that, as months and years passes, sheds its obscurity as Nanami (Haru Kuroki) transitions from a client to an eventual staff member. In doing so, she attains an odd sense of calm and even satisfaction in her new lifestyle of shapeshifting and role-playing in various fantasies. But because Yuichi of Family Romance, LLC (whether the IRL Yuichi experiences such existential confusion should not be assumed) has become increasingly comfortable as Mahiro's father, he subsequently becomes suspicious of his capacity to move from one act to another, now pained during his intimate meetings with the girl. Her presence, once limited to a few hours a week, seeps into other daily tasks: For undisclosed purposes, he pays a visit to a robot hotel, chatting with the manager about its customers—what they want, why they stay. The robots blankly stare at Yuichi as he enters his name into a registration machine. His attention is suddenly caught by a tank of virtual fish, which the manager states only exist for their customers' entertainment. Herzog's camera pushes closer into Yuichi's face, as he follows the fish with his finger. Despite its appearance of altruism and emotional fulfillment, is Family Romance but a peddler of virtual fish? But though Yuichi has become the robotic toy of his clients through his employment, it is also evident that he himself felt palpable pleasure from being Mahiro's father—and her mother's husband—from the outside looking in, only to pack up and leave and play house with countless others.
In cases where the clients are women and the men of Family Romance are hired to act as husbands, Ishii himself has noted that many women will ask him to stay longer, having fallen in love regardless of the money exchanged for his comfort. Though Mahiro's mother's plight as a single mom is never depicted onscreen, we see her waiting for Yuichi and watching him in the enormous living room—and later, the bedroom—of her home, a house of shiny surfaces widened by its lack of inhabitants. Yuichi, detecting attraction in her voice, attempts to share some of his emerging concerns regarding the job. Mahiro has begun asking for Ishii to stay over, saying she loves him. He has become, as the company motto states, "more than real." This would mean that he has successfully met the demands of the job, but, as Yuichi explains, it may be going "too far." Mahiro's mother refuses to understand these concerns. She compliments his skills as a rental father, then suggesting that he could be a real one, driving him to the point of voluntary resignation.
But by leaving Mahiro and her mother, and instructing her mother to fake his death so that Mahiro must face his departure, is Yuichi actually then performing the full scope of his role as an estranged father? The idea that a more authentic manipulation demands even further manipulation, that maybe to be more real is to be even less so, sends Yuichi down a spiral. He shares with his friend that he wonders if his own family is made up of actors—it is the first time he even mentions that he has a family. An upsetting dream of samurai in the park (which Herzog presents as a desaturated and slowed flashback of footage we saw in the film's first chapter) haunts him, as they slash and stab one another, then commit seppuku without swords. Their bodies convulse and collapse into the grass. It is uncertain whether Yuichi is the samurai, who pantomimes death for onlookers, or if he is actually watching from afar in a renewed puzzlement. The dream sequence asks that the viewers of Family Romance, LLC also look back on footage from earlier points—a little girl who magically appears in the park and plays with Mahiro and Yuichi, a bride who rents a proper father for her wedding—and consider their scripted structure, what it means to be scripted to maintain the narrative stability of reality. For Yuichi to go home after work, in the film's final scene, is for him the loss of that script (of those many scripts). A child's silhouette appears against the door—Yuichi's own, presumably. But without the paperwork to explicate what to do or who to be, Yuichi cannot think of what comes next, or even recognize who else is performing alongside him, standing on the other side.

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