Family Romance, LLC (2020)

A scene from Werner Herzog's 'Family Romance, LLC' (courtesy of MUBI)



Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro Tanimoto, Miki Fujimaki, Takashi Nakatani, Kumi Manda, Yuka Watanabe

Directed by Werner Herzog

Auteur Werner Herzog, who fluctuates between documentaries and narrative features, returns with a hybrid of both. “Family Romance, LLC” is a fascinating film that examines the current Japanese phenomenon of renting family members. Ishii Yuichi, the founder of the company that gives the film its title, plays a fictionalized version of himself in what resembles a documentary. Herzog, serving as his own cinematographer, shoots covertly as we watch Yuichi get hired to play the role of father to 12-year girl Mahiro, whose real dad walked out when she was a child.  It’s a role he’s played with over 25 real families. 

So, your dad’s an alcoholic and your wedding day has arrived. As usual, he’s soused. What do you do? If you are in Tokyo you can reach out to Family Romance, the company started by Ishii Yuichi, and hire him to play the role of your father or enlist one of the talented actors on his team to play the respectable and loving patriarch at your nuptials.

That scenario plays out in Herzog’s film when the mother of the bride (Kumi Manda) contacts the company stating that her husband has epilepsy and so with his blessing, she’s come to Yuichi to hire someone to take his role at their daughter’s wedding, sparing the bride some embarrassment. After the actor from Family Romance (Takashi Nakatani) gets a few details about the father’s personality he meets the bride (Yuka Watanabe) who lets it slip that her mother is lying about her dad’s epilepsy. He’s not epileptic, he’s a drunk who’s too smashed to be at the wedding.

It’s easy to believe that you are watching a documentary or reality show because the actors are unknowns and they have rehearsed the well-choreographed scenes before shooting. Since they are speaking Japanese, a language that Herzog is not well-versed in, the director relays on his instincts, looking past the language barrier to peer deep inside these actor’s souls before deciding to use the take or reshoot the scene. He may not understand what they are saying but body language, eye contact, and the level of emotion exhibited by the actors are enough to give Herzog the instinct to keep the shot. It helps that these actors are working without a script and using their own words to play these roles. Knowing that, Herzog doesn’t need to rely on them sticking to the script, it makes perfect sense and of course, a translator is there to relay what was said. 

In one scene Yuichi explains to a client that “love” can never come into play while he’s performing his hired role. How far is too far? The client, a wealthy single mom (Miki Fujimaki) hired Yuichi to pretend to be the father of her 12-year-old daughter Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto) whose real dad walked out when she was two years old. We watch as the shy girl slowly warms up to the idea that her father is back in her life as Yuichi plays the role of a loving dad who realizes his mistake and is now back in his daughter’s life. After spending time together doing father-daughter things, Mahiro falls in love with her dad and wants him to move back home. Uh-oh. What do you do now? Yuichi’s solution, kill him off.

“Family Romance, LLC” keeps the viewer engaged as the family-rental-business-drama ventures off into displays of other offered services like an employee who hires Yuichi to take an ass chewing from his boss for screwing up on the job, and a client who hires Yuichi and his team to play the paparazzi taking snapshots of her while building up a frenzy on the streets of Tokyo just so people will feel she is famous. It works as people ask to have their pictures taken with the celebrity wannabe.

It’s easy to forget that everyone but Yuichi is an actor even though many of the scenes in the film are based on actual encounters. Herzog delivers another captivating look at real-life that is imitated once again by the art of filmmaking.

(3 ½ stars)

Now available to stream on MUBI

Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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