The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - FAMILY ROMANCE, LLC | The Movie Waffler


A man is hired to pose as the long lost father of a 12-year-old girl.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro Tanimoto, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki

family romance llc poster

From Family Romance, LLC's fetishised opening montage of cherry blossom trees in colourful full bloom, it's clear that Japan is a country that holds a fascination for Werner Herzog. Who wouldn't be fascinated by Japan? While the world becomes increasingly homogenised (ie Americanised), Japan remains uniquely quirky in the eyes of us westerners. We rarely get to say "Only in America!" anymore, as there's little that distinguishes the U.S. from the rest of us today, but the Land of the Rising Sun boasts enough curious oddities for the phrase "Only in Japan!" to still hold weight.

One such quirk is Family Romance, a Tokyo based firm that specialises in hiring out actors to play roles in specific social scenarios. You're a bride who wants to be given away by a father but you're embarrassed by your real dad's drinking problem? Hire an actor to take his place. You've messed up at work but don't want to take a bollocking from a boss who couldn't pick you out of a line-up? FR will supply an actor to step in and take the blame for your professional indiscretion. Want to fool passersby into believing you're a celebrity? Hire FR's roster of actors to pose as paparazzi photographers who accost you on a busy street.

family romance llc review

These are just some of the scenarios re-enacted in the meta-fictional drama Herzog has concocted from this bizarre service. To play his protagonist, the head of Family Romance, Herzog has enlisted Yuichi Ishii, who is not an actor, but rather the real life head of the real life Family Romance, which I guess does make him an actor, as his job revolves around playing roles. There are more layers to this than the average onion.

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Yuichi drifts in and out of various scenarios, but the film's main narrative sees him hired by a woman (Miki Fujimaki) to pose as her long-dead husband. Her daughter, Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto), who was just two years old when her father passed, has no idea he died, as she was told he simply disappeared. Yuichi is tasked with "re-entering" his "daughter"'s life and pressing her for information regarding her relationship with her mother. As Yuichi and Mahiro bond over several months, Yuichi begins to develop paternal feelings for Mahiro, who likewise unquestioningly accepts him as her real father.

family romance llc review

The outright immorality of Yuichi accepting such an unethical assignment initially seems like a stumbling block when it comes to our embracing of Herzog's latest work. Yuichi appears to be a thoroughly decent chap, and he becomes increasingly troubled by Mahiro's bonding with the man she believes is her father, but no right-minded individual would agree to take part in what amounts to psychological abuse of a child in the first place. In this way it might be viewed in the manner of some decades old romantic comedy where the male lead behaves in a way that was once considered charming but which we now recognise as downright creepy (think of all those '80s comedies where men would adopt false identities to win over the women of their dreams), replacing "Well, it was the '80s" with "Only in Japan!"

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But this is Werner Herzog, not John Hughes, and there's more going on here than simply a screwed up screwball scenario. Herzog's camera doesn't simply linger on those cherry blossoms because they look pretty. In Japanese culture, the cherry blossom tree is tied in with the Buddhist's awareness of impermanence. A fully bloomed cherry blossom tree is something that can only be enjoyed for a limited time before it sheds its purple plumage. Yuichi enjoys his time with the daughter he never had, and even seems to develop a bond with the girl's mother, but he knows that, like life itself, this is a charade that must come to an inevitably hurtful end. His plan to end his immoral masquerade in the way that he believes will cause Mahiro the least pain - faking his death - seems naive, yet fitting for the film's adoption of Buddhist thinking.

family romance llc review

As you watch the fictional Yuichi go on this journey, you can't help but wonder what the real life Yuichi (who it must be said, is as charismatic a presence as any traditional leading man) makes of this story Herzog has inserted him into. The film is quite damning of Yuichi's practice, which makes it all the more odd that he would agree to take part, though maybe the old adage that there's no such thing as bad press applies here. Family Romance, LLC might be viewed in a similar vein to the documentary The Act of Killing, in which filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer coaxed a group of elderly Indonesian men into recreating the atrocities they committed in the anti-communist purge of the '60s through the medium of Hollywood style scenarios. Is Herzog doing something similar to Yuichi here, using his role in a fictional narrative to make him see the error of his ways?

The word "artificial" was originally defined as "relating to art," and with his latest film Herzog seems to be exploring the idea of how we increasingly derive pleasure from artifice. At one point Yuichi gazes at robotic fish swimming in the tank of a lobby of a hotel staffed by robots. If this were a straight documentary you imagine Herzog's distinctive drawl might appear in voiceover, intoning how Yuichi knows the fish aren't real yet is enchanted by, rather than in spite of, their artificiality. The elderly woman who hires Yuichi to pose as a lottery agent delivering the news of a considerable cash prize knows that her win isn't real, yet she appears to derive great pleasure from his pre-planned delivery of the fake surprise. The young woman who poses for fake paparazzi too knows she will never garner such attention for real, but she laps it up regardless. In all of the subplots Yuichi finds himself engaged in, his service is benign if not benevolent, yet in the main storyline that's simply not the case. Mahiro isn't aware of the artifice - for her, Yuichi represents something genuine, something that can't be purchased for a daily fee plus expenses. Ultimately, what breaks Yuichi is his realisation that the artificiality we accept in our lives is as finite as the leaves of a cherry blossom tree.

Family Romance, LLC is on MUBI UK now.