Many films about Japan make it appear to be an extremely strange country, including a new movie called Family Romance, LLC directed by the distinguished German auteur, Werner Herzog.
The leading character is a man named, Ishii Yuichi, who can be hired to play the roles of family members or other surrogates, such as a pretend paparazzi photographer.
Apparently, Ishii-San is not a professional screen actor but an entrepreneur who in real life runs an agency that rents out people. The story focuses on his relationship with a 12-year-old girl who believes he is her father. A series of intimate scenes raises difficult questions about whether family love can be faked.
Shocked and puzzled
Viewers have had strong reactions.
“How weird is that? Could you ask for a weirder?” asked one British reviewer. She assumed that the movie explores social situations which are common in Japan.
This is understandable, because in interviews to promote the film, Werner Herzog said that in Japan “romance is a business” and that “this has grown exponentially in the public awareness.”
However, my personal opinion is that the director delights in the eccentric and is prepared to exaggerate reality to make life in Japan seem even more interesting.
I have been reading about these human rental agencies for at least twenty years. Surely it’s never been more than a niche business, a bit like a hedgehog cafe which appears in the film?
I also feel that Family Business LLC plays into a trope that Japanese men are deceitful and corruptible when it comes to money and fickle when it comes to love. In this film, the women are seductive, deluded, skittish and easily deceived – or they are portrayed robots who are programmed to smile and be subservient.
Maybe that’s reading too much into it. I should not offer a feminist thesis on what’s meant to be a whimsical and affectionate film. And I really enjoyed the drama and the dialogue.
In fact, it reminded me of some of the art house films made by Japanese directors which explore the nuances of family relationships. Herzog pays tribute to a particular type of modern Japanese drama, which often uses quirky plot devices to move the story forward and reveal the characters’ deep emotion.
Family Business LLC has been available on streaming platforms since last week and you can rent it for an evening online. You might also enjoy listening to Werner Herzog explain why he made the film in this thoughtful podcast.