Li(v)es Lived in Herzog’s “Family Romance, LLC” (2019): Reflections on the Construction of Reality

From the start of Family Romance, LLC (2019), one is struck by the audacity of the lie Yuichi Ishii, father for hire, spins to Mahiro, a young girl of twelve whose real father has died. When they meet, Yuichi exudes confident stability and security: dressed in a respectable three-piece suit, he announces without hesitation that he is her father, that he recognized her immediately, and that his absence is the result of a quarrel with her mother when Mahiro was sixteen months old. With the greatest ease, he gestures at her face and notes she even looks like him. Yuichi’s calm assertion of these intimate details feels transgressive; to enter into the role with such a personal rewriting of history ventures far beyond what could be a white lie to a grand fantasy playing off of a child’s traumas and hopes. 

Of course, as director Werner Herzog clarifies before the film begins, everything the viewer sees is a performance. The actors have been cast from Yuichi’s real-life agency in Japan, Family Romance, LLC. The success of the business as well as Herzog’s film depends on a new criterion of truth that distinguishes between the embodiment of a core emotional authenticity and external facticity or unnatural posturing: thus, when Mahiro’s mother requests on her “order form” that Yuichi mimic the real father’s eye twitch, Yuichi declines, noting: “our policy is that we can only do what we really are.” Accordingly, Herzog directed the actors by insisting on a few key sentences but allowing them to spontaneously generate the rest of the dialogue; and as cinematographer, Herzog declined simultaneous translation of the Japanese, instead relying on intuition for what he termed the “authenticity of the emotions.” This film is thus believable rather than farcical, moving rather than cynical. However, in the course of the film this premise is also questioned. Even the opening, with its profusion of cherry blossom trees in bloom and a chorus of heavenly voices, hints at parody. Throughout, the film balances uneasily on this edge of sincerity and contrivance, so that there is always a risk of estrangement from the real. 

Arguably every scene refers back to the central issue of authenticity: does it lie with emotional truth, can it only spring up naturally, or can it be performed? Does truth rest on an objective standard or the subject’s desire to believe? How much depends on social convention? Ultimately, what makes reality real? In addressing subjectivity in relation to art/artifice, Herzog evokes the work of philosophers from Sartre to Kracauer to Baudrillard. The simplicity of the plot (man hired as surrogate father; relationship with daughter develops, then ceases) allows the theoretical complexity of the film to shine. Questions, rather than characters, take center stage for the viewer. 

Even the technical approach participates in this simultaneous quest for authenticity and the questioning of its possibility at all. Family Romance, LLC is filmed sparingly, with a documentary style instead of the Hollywood effects and multiple angles decried by Herzog. Entirely in Japanese, it lacks Herzog’s typical engagement with the protagonists of the film through voice-overs or directly appearing on-camera. As the camera records the first embrace between Yuichi and Mahiro, the lens is clouded with specks of dust refracting in the light. There is otherwise little trace of the physical recording process, which approximates a natural unfolding of events. In the introduction to the film, Herzog cites a desire to return to the low-budget approach of his epic, Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), where filming was itself an adventure, the unknown constantly around the corner. Equipped with only a small camera for unobtrusive shooting and acting as the cinematographer himself, Herzog was able to shoot in crowds and bypass film permits in Tokyo for Family Romance, LLC. The crew was, for instance, not authorized to shoot by the high-speed rail, so Herzog filmed the entire scene in “seventy seconds,” with the cast dispersing immediately after to evade advancing authorities. Herzog’s renegade spirit infuses his technical approach, troubling the boundaries of genre and integrating the possibilities and perils of real life into the film.   

From the start, the relationship between Yuichi and Mahiro displays its reliance on artificial signs, where even the city’s architecture serves as stage prop. The first encounter between father and daughter is staged on a busy bridge, a symbolic landmark for their reunion. Mahiro walks back and forth several times and sneaks a photo of Yuichi, who stands in the center, following her with his eyes. This is ostensibly a demonstration of her shyness, their slow approach to familiarity. On a conceptual scale, however, it foregrounds each character in the act of observation, with Mahiro’s surreptitious photograph functioning as a form of narrative framing. Similarly, when Mahiro purposefully dons her school uniform to go on a walk with Yuichi, she is performing her pride in her identity as a student. When she shares an Instagram photo of her taken at a local beach and claims that it was taken in Bali, she participates in the same invention and deception that Yuichi does as her “father.” “How much of our own life is performative?” Herzog asks. These are not new questions that Herzog poses, but they take on new urgency in the 21st century, with its crisis of fake news and the ubiquity of self-styling on platforms, like Instagram, that market identity. 

In a scene early on, Yuichi and Mahiro go to an automated oracle in a box at the park that dispenses fortunes for a small price. Their fortune reads “you will meet someone special” and “it will be a lasting relationship,” leading Yuichi to declare to Mahiro: “This is about us.” They continue in the long human tradition of seeking comfort in representatives of a higher power, and choosing their own interpretation of (often ambiguous) prophecies. Later, Yuichi and Mahiro’s mother visit a real oracle. They kneel before her in her small apartment, where she enacts a ritual of rubbing beads, chanting and bowing. It, too, is a performance, with specific details and patterns that make her role believable, providing a narrative in which they can immerse themselves. Family Romance, LLC sells dreams to its clients, fulfilling their wishes for things beyond their natural grasp.

More than personal desires, though, the LLC responds to social roles and expectations. While the film follows the development of a father-daughter relationship between Yuichi and Mahiro, it also features Yuichi’s interactions with unrelated clients. These scenarios flesh out the general nature of the work done by Yuichi’s company, suggesting the range of desires that can be fulfilled via brief contractual agreement. At one point, an agent of Yuichi’s acts as a “stand-in husband” at a wedding for a woman whose daughter is getting married but whose real husband has epilepsy; or so he is first told. It turns out that the real father is an alcoholic, not epileptic, and so the client’s lie to the hired agent is folded into the larger lie of the whole business, and indeed, of the theater staged by Herzog’s film. Yuichi’s company is like a modern-day extension of the mourners hired to shriek and beat their chests at funerals in ancient Greek society. 

And like some ancient tragedy, the great “family romance” trades in such eternal themes as guilt, pride, and vanity. One worker at the high-speed rail hires Yuichi to take the blame from his boss for his mistake in a mistimed train departure, so it is Yuichi who prostrates himself on the ground before a furious man he has never seen before. The scene is executed so smoothly, filmed in one take, and tucked inside the film as simply another subplot. Yet it is one of the more disturbing points in the narrative, as it brings out the ethical import of human substitutability. Calling to mind historical practices of scapegoating and Catholic Indulgences, the vignette confirms that one can separate responsibility from a person, parcel it and shift it to another—for a price. Elsewhere in the film, a woman pays for a host of photographers to follow her in the streets to feign celebrity —a costume that requires the accessories of paparazzi and that works, as other passersby stop to take a photograph with her, according to her reasoning that the appearance of fame will lead to actual fame. The scene recalls the phenomenon of “the most photographed barn in America” in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, an attraction that is essentially famous for being famous.

These instances all complicate the simplicity of the divide between an internal, authentic spirit and external performance supposed by Herzog. For him, this divide allows the artificial, such as his film, to still be authentic and truthful. However, the one-time substitutions performed by Yuichi reveal that such a divide was indistinguishable to characters from the beginning. It is that very assumption of Yuichi’s clients that the real can be substituted for at all—preexisting the development of a relationship over time (such as Yuichi and Mahiro’s)—that allows Family Romance, LLC to make a business out of interchangeability. Yuichi and Mahiro’s longer-term relationship is simply the rare case where emotional authenticity begins to grow out of, or perhaps into, the space of external performance: content emerges to fit its form.

Perhaps Herzog chose to center his film around the father-daughter relationship of Yuichi and Mahiro not only because the duration of their relationship demonstrates the process by which performance becomes reality, but because the innocence and purity of emotion motivating the bond troubles the otherwise easy condescension towards the commodification of li(v)es. Unlike the other characters who are motivated by vanity, the desire to save face or elevate their self-worth, there is a trust and care in the relationship between Yuichi and Mahiro that ultimately makes Yuichi terminate their contract. 

It is never clear if Mahiro is aware of the duplicity, or if she truly believes her father has returned. Yuichi, however, keeps the line clearly in sight. On the train to the oracle, Mahiro’s mother tells him that he is “a friend I can trust,” to which he responds bluntly, “it’s what you’re paying for.” When Mahiro expresses the wish to stay with him “forever,” and hopes she can spend weekends with him, he realizes the fantasy is in danger of becoming a real-life commitment. Though Mahiro’s mother invites him to move in so they can become “a real family,” listing the material comforts that would be at his disposal, he declines. “At Family Romance we are not allowed to love or be loved,” he tells her, so that even the authenticity necessary for a credible performance must be checked and not allowed to slip into actuality. When Mahiro’s mother hopes for marriage, Yuichi proposes instead terminating social ties with a funeral for his character.   

Herzog’s film confronts the danger of the doppelgänger, where the subject is no longer unique, and when the line between reality and dream or artifice can no longer be distinguished. Yuichi confesses: “Sometimes, I wonder whether my own family might have been hired by someone…what if they are just actors playing roles?” The issue of imperceptible difference becomes an existential threat, one that Herzog muses on with scenes from a robot hotel with automated employees and robotic fish. The hotel representative explains their mission is “creating a world of entertainment,” an entire cosmos in which even the aquatic life has a machine counterpart. In what seems the most scripted line in the film, reflecting Herzog’s longtime fascination with dreams and the fantastical in his filmography and writing, Yuichi wonders aloud if one day robots will have dreams too. Family Romance, LLC is populated with proxies—robots, hired husbands, the doll-child Airi—that all have the potential to take on lives of their own, as the lie of being Mahiro’s father suddenly seems close to doing.

What saves Herzog’s film from the sentimentality and predictability of the Hollywood fake marriage plot—anything from Hired Wife (1940) to The Proposal (2009)—is not only its documentary aesthetic or Yuichi’s decision to step away, but also the openness in the film’s narrative framework. Such openness derives partly from the vignettes with Yuichi’s agents and clients that provide glimpses into other lives, breaking up the main plot with Mahiro. But it is the trip outside of the city to the oracle that cracks open the film conceptually. The oracle’s pronouncement is interrupted by a ringing phone, which she lets ring out over her words, even holding the phone in her hands for several moments before switching it off. A modern disruption of an ancient ritual, it’s echoed in the following scene where Mahiro’s mother is seen seated on a cliff edge with a corded telephone that rings and rings. While gazing out dramatically at the sea, Yuichi asks her if she was trying to call someone dead, but she answers that she was trying to contact someone living. It is a “phone call to the wind,” as Herzog puts it, at a phone booth set up after the 2011 tsunami to allow people to call lost loved ones. Like the dial tone in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, it’s left as enigmatic openness to the numinous. Yet, it also has a more sinister shadow in the final scene of the film, where Yuichi approaches a house, presumably his own, but does not enter. Instead, he crouches by the door, staring at its frosted glass and the pair of infant’s hands that press against the pane. Like Mahiro’s mother trying to speak to the living but calling out into emptiness, Yuichi remains separated from those around him. 

Though Herzog’s film operates on his professed faith in a distinct internal spirit, one separate from the external validity of fact or form, that can transcend even the difference in language—language, the ultimate form of substitution—the film is marked by alienation, alienation from being twice-removed from the real. After all, in Family Romance, LLC the actors play actors who bear their own names, and even the title of the film is a double of the company’s name. Yuichi, the center of the artifice as head of the company, is the only one who apprehends the danger and horror of confusing the essential with the formal, the internal with the external. He, fittingly, cannot enter his house but remains outside. The robot hotel is a redundancy to the extent that the living are already inaccessible to those around them.             

Yet, even such a conclusion is not so simple: remembering that much of the acting has been improvised allows back in the spontaneity and potential of life. In short, Herzog challenges the line between truth and performance, and the traditionally associated values, across technical, narrative, and conceptual structures. Family Romance, LLC seems so much like real life precisely because it too is a mise en abyme of realities.

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