Family Romance is a Japan-based company that offers professional actors whom customers can hire to play their family, friends, co-workers, or whatever else in their personal lives. It’s one of multiple such businesses in the country. In his new film Family Romance, LLC, Werner Herzog follows Family Romance founder Yuichi Ishii on several different “jobs,” questioning the nature of loneliness and how the modern world handles the absences where our cultures say important people should be. And this theme is built even into the film itself, because it’s not one of Herzog’s documentaries, but a constructed story. Ishii is not appearing as a subject, but playing himself as a character.
The film defies easy categorization as fiction or nonfiction. The main plot, about Ishii being hired to play the absent father of a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t know he’s an actor, is based on a real experience which he has talked about before in interviews. Every vignette of different Family Romance “gigs” throughout the film is similarly grounded in reality, such as actors playing paparazzi in order to make a wannabe star look legit, or one posing as a co-worker for a client who needs a scapegoat for a workplace mistake. Herzog could have easily just followed the company’s workers doing similar work for real, but he instead layers on additional artifice to underline the idea of performance and reality blurring together until they’re difficult to separate.
This feeling is further enhanced by the film’s look. Herzog shoots mainly with handhelds, almost vérité style, which is a departure not merely from normal fiction film aesthetics but even the approach he typically uses for his documentaries. (The biggest break from his usual nonfiction style is the absence of his famous, thickly Bavarian narration.) There’s constant friction between the viewer’s sense that they’re a fly on the wall and their knowledge of the film‘s fundamental artifice.
Art that interrogates the underlying precepts of its own existence is always fun to think about, and Family Romance, LLC gets twistier the more you examine it. What, for instance, is the ontological distinction between the “gimmick” here and the basic tenet of a fictional film, which also involves hiring people to act out scripted scenarios? Or to flip it, how different is the creation of a film from what Family Romance does in real life? Both involve individuals fulfilling a role that customers need them to, wherein the customer knows they are not what they present themselves to be but willingly suspend their disbelief for the sake of what they’re after (whether that’s simple entertainment or a position at a social event). And how different is this service from any other business in the modern world which has rendered parts of society or interpersonal relationships in purely transactional terms?
One of the most fascinating sequences in Family Romance, LLC follows Ishii to a robot hotel — that is, a hotel where not only much of the staff but even the fish in a tank are robots. While the mechanical concierge comes straight out of the uncanny valley, the robot fish are possibly even more unsettling. Ishii examines one as it swims in a tank; it’s obviously artificial and would never be mistaken for a real fish, but the way it moves through the water is eerily lifelike. We all settle for varying degrees of real and fake in our daily lives; here, Herzog pushes the audience to consider where their line is, and whether it might be further away from “genuine” than they might first assume.