Family Romance, LLC

Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Stars: Ishii Yuichi (Ishii Yuichi), Mahiro Tanimoto (Mahiro Tanimoto), Miki Fujimaki (Mahiro’s Mother), Takashi Nakatani (Father of Bride / Lottery Official), Kumi Manda (Mother of the Bride), Yuka Watanabe (Bride), Jin Kuroinu (Ishii’s Friend), Airi Coats (Mahiro’s Little Friend), Shun Ishigaki (Pantomime), Tatsuaki Hôjô (Bullet Train Official), Tetsuro Mori (Bullet Train Employee), Ryoko Sugimachi (Lottery Winner), Airi Asoh (Woman at Fox Shrine), Yuki Wakabayashi (Hedgehog Café), Umetani Hideyasu (Robot Hotel Manager), Iwamoto Eisuke (Funeral Home Manager), Take Nakamura (Oracle)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2020
Country: U.S. / Japan
Family Romance LLC
Family Romance LLC

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC is the first fictional feature film he has made in four years, and only the fourth he has made over the past decade. This does not mean that he has not been extremely prolific, having turned out, during those same years, seven feature-length documentaries, a documentary television series, and three documentary shorts. Herzog’s career, which dates back to the nascent days of the New German Cinema in the 1960s, has always slid back and forth between fictional and documentary features, and the two forms have consistently informed each other in his work. It seems in recent years, though, that the documentary pull has been stronger than ever, which perhaps accounts for why Family Romance, LLC plays both sides of the line.

If the press notes and Herzog himself are to be believed, the title derives from an actual company in Tokyo, Japan, that is headed by Ishii Yuichi, who plays a fictional version of himself in the film. The company provides a unique service to its clients, providing actors, or “impostors,” who pretend to be family members or other people in their lives to fill gaps. It sounds on the surface like a twisted scheme that takes advantage of desperate people, but the film presents it as a beneficent service, one that strives to make people happy and fill in where there is loss or need.

When the film opens, Ishii is pretending to be the father of 12-year-old Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto), whose actual father left when she was too young to remember. Her mother (Miki Fujimaki) wants her to feel some kind of paternal affection, but she also uses Ishii’s growing relationship with Mahiro to try to get information about her daughter, who is incredibly shy. Mahiro’s gradual opening up to Ishii and the genuine affection they begin to feel for each other is the film’s emotional backbone, and whenever Herzog diverts from it to depict other clients with whom Ishii or one of his stable of impostors is working, we yearn to get back to them. Perhaps it is because a lot of the other stories—including a woman who once won the lottery and wants to feel that thrill again, a woman who wants to become a celebrity and thinks that if she is seen on the street being photographed by paparazzi she will go viral, or a bullet train employee who messed up and wants someone else to take the verbal lashing from a company official—don’t have the same emotional resonance. Or, in some cases, any resonance at all.

Herzog is clearly intrigued by these scenarios (all of which he says he made up), and they construct an overall portrait of how such a company might operate, but they are usually more interesting than moving. They are like brief snippets of life that give some flavor, but don’t add up to much. It is only when Ishii’s relationship with Mahiro takes center stage that the film feels like it has dramatic heft, and Herzog builds this plotline into something with more thematic weight as it begins to interfere with the company’s rules about not getting emotionally involved with clients and stirring in Ishii seeds of doubt about those around him. After all, if he and his impostors are so good at fooling others about the people in their lives, who is to say that the same isn’t being done to them? As Herzog said in a recorded Q&A after the film’s streaming premiere, the film is about “a fundamental question of human existence: What is lie? What is truth?”

Of course, such a question has no real answer, which lets Herzog off the philosophical hook. He is simply dramatizing the enigma, not trying to solve it, and at times Family Romance, LLC genuinely makes you think. Unfortunately, at other times, it has a meandering quality that reflects the mundane rhythms of life (you can really sense the documentary impulse here), but little else. And, at other times, it seems like Herzog is drawn to oddities of Japanese culture, such as a hotel that is staffed entirely by creepily lifelike robots, that have little relevance to the plot(s), but are intriguing and weird on their own. Of course, Herzog has such room to operate because this is his project from end to end—he directed and wrote the script (although much of it was improvised with his cast), acted as his own cinematographer, shooting the film guerilla-style throughout Tokyo, and even paid for it himself with his paycheck from acting in The Mandalorian. And, as he has always done in his long and storied career, Herzogi is going to follow his instincts and fascinations and queries into whatever corner they take him.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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