Family Romance, LLC

I came unprepared to this film, knowing nothing of its background apart from its famed director, Werner Herzog, and it is set in Japan, the home of so many good movies.

In the opening scene a smart-suited man is waiting in a Tokyo beauty spot for a 12-year-old girl dressed in a hoodie. She is his estranged daughter and he is trying to make up for not seeing her while she was growing-up. It is sakura – cherry blossom – season and the two take selfies amongst the pale pink flowers as they get to know each other. Soon they are meeting regularly as the father takes his daughter on outings, the most memorable of which is when a passer-by goes through an extraordinary mime to amuse Mahiro.

But this is all an illusion as we soon learn that Ishii Yuichi has been hired by Mahiro’s rich divorced mother to pretend to be her father, to spy on her and to find out what she really thinks as she is showing signs of depression. So the engaging passerby whose antics so entrance Mahiro is nothing but a junior employee, and we wonder where all this will lead as Mahiro becomes increasingly attached to her Dad.

Yuichi in fact owns the eponymous Family Romance LLC, a company whose aim is to bring people happiness and joy. We meet him with various clients, like the lonely lottery winner who so misses the buzz of success that she asks him to surprise her so she can re-live those moments; or the bride whose father is such a drunk that the mother hires a fake father-of-the-bride. Or the wannabee starlet who makes him pretend to film her with all the attendant paparazzi in a Tokyo street to raise her social media profile and get her noticed. 

Another really bizarre incident takes place on the shinkansen,  or bullet train, platform where Yuichi has to kneel before a furious train manager and grovel an apology for letting a train leave 20 seconds early while the culprit looks on grinning nervously as he avoids the furious boss’s berating. Creepiest of all is the scene where Yuichi prepares to impersonate a corpse in an open coffin, apparently because people like to attend their own memorials by ‘being dead without dying’. There are many ways to make people happy, from the sublime to the ridiculous as we see.

But the central role-play is the father-daughter one. Yuichi becomes increasingly uncomfortable as Mahiro becomes more and more devoted to him. There is a strange scene where they pick up a four-year-old girl who is being bullied because she is ‘brown’ and cart her off to Tokyo’s space tower. Even in a world of loneliness and abandoned people it is surprising there are no anxious parents wondering where she has got to – but that seems to be a comment on contemporary Japanese society and this parellel universe that Family Romance inhabits. 

As we were watching the film I said, I bet this sort of company exists in Japan and, guess what dear reader, it does. Had I done my homework I would have known that Family Romance, LLC is a real company and Ishii Yuichi is its real boss, though the situations filmed are fictitious. Herzog is obviously fascinated by Japan and at times the film feels like a tour guide to its capital city as we visit some of its stranger attractions – a hedgehog café, where you can tickle their tummies while having a cuppa; the decorated fox statues at the Toyokawa Inari Tokyo Betsuin Temple which is dedicated to them; and, the oddest of all, a hotel entirely managed by robots, down to a hypnotic fish tank with great computerised groupers swimming around.

Herzog lingers so long here that it is impossible not to feel that this is the nub of our exploratory journey about the Japanese psyche: are we all heading for a world where the machines will take over, where our lives are subverted to being taken over by imposters, Yuichi’s daily bread-and-butter? Are we so immune to normality that the creepy relationship between Yuichi and Mahiro, which in the west would be deemed as inappropriate, is OK? It is a world where even Mahiro does not tell the truth to her beloved father, fantasising about an imaginary holiday on a Bali beach. Nothing is as it seems, or to be taken at face value.

All good things come to an end as we know; Yuichi cannot continue with this charade forever as the rules of engagement state, ‘We are not allowed to love or be loved’. It is an extraordinarily engrossing – and sad – film, even before I knew it was a quasi-documentary!

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