IFFR Review: Werner Herzog's 'Family Romance, LLC' Made in Japan
by Forrest Cardamenis
February 5, 2020
One of the most damaging aspects of neo-liberalism has been its commodification of human relationships. This is demonstrated and analyzed in a New Yorker article entitled "Japan's Rent-a-Family industry," and that same article is the basis of Werner Herzog's newest film, Family Romance, LLC, named after the profiled company. Herzog, however, is not much interested in politics. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) is a colonialist scenario depicted as a search for the sublime; in Lo & Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016), Herzog is more interested in capitalists and their victims than capitalism as such. Such is the case in Family Romance, in which the casting of non-professional actors, including Yuichi Ishii, the founder of Family Romance, as himself, is the tell. For Herzog, psychic effects matter more than political conditions.
The mockumentary film begins with Ishii waiting to meet with Mahiro, a twelve-year old daughter of a long-divorced mother. Ishii is to play Mahiro's father, and after the expected initial awkwardness, it goes fairly well; they soon take pictures together among the cherry blossoms, sit close together, and mutually express excitement about their next meeting. It's then that we get a look behind the curtain and see Ishii brokering another transaction, finding a man to step in as the father of a bride. We will see a number of other "rentals" throughout the film—including one in which Ishii takes a workplace scolding for an errant employee—but the relationship with Mahiro forms the through line of the film.
There is very little conflict—or at least overt conflict—in Family Romance, LLC. Nobody questions the ethics of the business; nobody discovers that their "father" or other associate is essentially an actor; and no client ever berated within the film or even looked down upon by it for their decision to contract Family Romance. The only time anyone raises their voice or gets angry is the aforementioned workplace scolding. This is a remarkably easygoing film, taking place entirely in daylight and mostly in exteriors that show off Japanese landscapes and cityscapes, all relaxingly scored by cellist Ernst Reijseger (who also scored Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams).
None of that is to say Werner Herzog is entirely unquestioning of the practice he depicts. On the contrary, the strangeness of the business and the nonchalance with which it is treated immediately triggers a sense of uncanniness, and the business's transactions are sequenced in such a way to amplify this feeling. After the wedding and then the scolding comes a woman who has won the lottery and decides to use her winnings—20 million yen, or about $180,000—to restage her initial discovery and recapture the same joyful feeling. While the film itself resists the imposition of judgment, Herzog knows that merely watching this unfold, as we do, is enough to trigger discomfort. What do we make of our relationship to money and material goods if we use it instead to try to bottle an emotion?
At one point, Ishii visits a hotel staffed by robots to determine whether his own business could be improved. The robots, we learn, are there to provide good customer experience and satisfy people's need for interaction (the same things, in other words, human employees generally do). We never learn what Ishii makes of this, but we do watch as he stares at a fish tank filled entirely with mechanical, robotic fish. Herzog lingers on the fish—their silver, metallic insides occasionally visible as the fish turn—for a long time. He cuts repeatedly to new angles, and Reijseger's score begins to tinge toward melancholy. It is the beginning of an understated unraveling that, although it pulls its final punch, lingers long after the movie ends.
In that sense, Family Romance closely resembles Manoel de Oliveira's A Talking Picture (2003), another apparently care-free, touristic work whose more nefarious undertones eventually overwhelm the surface. Herzog's decision to cast Yuichi Ishii, a man whose life is effectively acting, as his lead and work with non-professionals draws a curious parallel between filmmaking and some of humanity's more debased longings—for Herzog, normalcy; for de Oliveira, knowledge and culture. If Herzog does not quite allow his grimmer sentiments to overwhelm his film this time, he also is more forgiving of the viewer, who may, in the end, be de Oliveira's prime target. Herzog's goals are more modest: he asks us to contemplate the costs at which we pursue normalcy and avoid embarrassment. Whether or not those longings can be divorced from political conditioning, the strangeness of Family Romance, LLC is just enough to pose the question.
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