Werner Herzog’s approach to reality and fiction has always been blurred. His documentaries have contrivances and his fiction films have elements of truthfulness, sometimes to extremes such as filming on Cerro Torre in Pagagonia in Scream of Stone or the boat-across-the-mountain in Fitzcarraldo.
Family Romance, LLC is a comparatively minor work that blends of truth and fiction even closer than usual, which gives it a beguiling strangeness that I found captivating. It’s one of three Herzog films from 2019 alongside his personal and slightly self-regarding Bruce Chatwin profile Nomad and his interview documentary Meeting Gorbachev.
The film depicts an actual Japanese phenomenon: agencies that loan out actors to play surrogate family or friends to people who have absences in their lives. The ‘Family Romance’ agency is run by actor Ishii Yuichi, and we get to watch Ishii on a number of assignments. Although what we see on screen is fictionalised, Ishii is in fact playing himself and his agency is real (it was also profiled in a New Yorker article). This gives the film a strange triple-layer of realities.
The film is episodic, depicting several ‘Family Romance’ engagements. Some are humourous, others poignant.
There’s the older, lonely woman who wants to recreate the treasured moment she won a modest prize in the lottery. The train worker who hires Ishii to be the fall guy, bowing emphatically to his superior to take the blame for an error so the worker can retain his dignity. A girl who wants to play the celebrity, leading her own paparazzi entourage. And a particularly odd moment when Ishii takes the place of a critically ill family member, even trying out a coffin for size and remarking on the mortal perspective that the experience gives. All shot with a curious detachment with none of Herzog’s voice-over narration; the near cinema-verite approach gives the proceedings a calmness and we just let the scenes play out with mild curiosity and anticipation.
If it weren’t for this sheer oddness, Herzog’s film would seem overly sentimental, almost sacharine.
Made on a low budget and shot with a grainy hand-held video camera by Herzog himself, this feels like a documentary even though the camera set-ups betray that the situations are pre-planned. The acting is somehow simultaneously wooden, naturalistic and unmannered with a quiet immediacy that comes I suspect from using non-actors. Aside from Ishii, I wondered whether some of the other ‘actors’ in the agency were also playing themselves, recreating their own experiences. It’s all very strange.
Although the film pleasingly meanders, we return several times to a central assignment where Ishii is hired to play a missing father for teenaged girl Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto). Her mother is concerned that Mahiro has become reserved and shy, and perhaps this is due to the absence of a father-figure – her dad left when she was an infant. The pair spend time in Yoyogi Park, climb the Tokyo Tower (I was reminded of the scene with Herzog at the same location in Wim Wenders’s Tokyo GA), and gradually the daughter regains her confidence and she begins to open up to Ishii.
It’s here that we begin to understand that Ishii is more than just an actor or a con-man. He sees his vocation as a sort of therapy, bringing a happiness or relief to his clients. Betraying almost nothing of himself, he’s a sort of blank canvas for his clients to project their needs. And Herzog’s script teases the moral ambiguities of this role, questioning the ethics and limits of this well-meaning but ultimately deceptive role. And even teases in a poignant closing scene whether Ishii can now truly know if even his own family are his own.
Although this seems relatively straightforward, there are examples of the Herzog flourishes we have come to expect.
It’s become an easy cliche to depict Japan as a collection of trope eccentricities, schoolgirl fetishes, sushi and robots. Admittedly, Herzog is excitedly beguiled and bewildered by a hotel with robot receptionists but then he turns his camera to gaze at something stranger – to a fish tank in the hotel lobby full of disconcertingly realistic robot fish (do androids dream of electric fish?).
He holds the camera on them for a long time, letting their strangeness seep in. Just like the iguanas in Bad Lieutenant, this unexpected distraction has a strange beauty. These uncanny artificial creatures pretending to be real become a symbol for the movie’s theme.
Family Romance LLC is a fascinating minor Herzog, beguiling in its strangeness and asking subtle questions about what we look for from the people around us.