Taking as his subject the Japanese company Family Romance LLC, director Werner Herzog returns to offer a work widely labelled as ‘strange’ by the media that renders the line between real and artificial indistinct. Titled as it is — Family Romance LLC, after the company — the film plays out through a series of fragmented scenes picked from the over 300 hours of footage that Herzog himself took while following the company’s proprietor, Yuichi Ishii, during his time at work playing various roles for families and others. The story that binds all of these together is the role that Ishii is hired to play by a single mother: filling in for her husband, he takes the role of father to her woebegone 12 year old daughter and visits a number of tourist sites while prying into her feelings towards her mother. Apart from that, Ishii is also seen playing the role of an employee at a train station, prostrating himself in shame — in an amusing display of a very Japanese problem — when a train leaves 20 seconds early so as to take the blame off the real culprit. It would seem that if the company’s operations were limited to that of family member replacement or some other such emotional/therapeutic stand-in that Herzog would have crafted a functional and well-developed social commentary on the nature of services in contemporary society; obviously that isn’t the case, and so whatever might be drawn out of this vein only appears muddled and indeterminate.
This is further complicated by the visual grammar used which seemingly replicates that of a student film with boring, inexpressive shots composed by Herzog fumbling around next to the actors with a handheld camera. But even taken as it is, Family Romance LLC shouldn’t be considered a total misfire. Towards the end we come to understand that the company’s methods and regulations (that the real is only replaced with a stand-in, not a copy; just an actor that still maintains their self while performing a role) don’t allow members to “love or to be loved,” thereby revealing the line between business and family that had been kept hidden till this point. Thus, a contradiction is made between the company’s modus operandi and the potential their work does for allowing the copy to become supplanted by the real for the renter. Now the company is given a sinister edge and their practices brought into question before, finally, the film concludes with Ishii’s return home to his real family. It’s clear that he too has begun to wonder if the real is that much different from the fake.
You can currently stream Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC on Mubi.