For those raised on a diet of hot dogs and hamburgers, think back to the first time you ever heard of sushi, and the idea of eating raw fish. Werner Herzog’s “Family Romance, LLC” extends a comparably otherizing attitude to a Japanese rent-a-relative service written up last year in The New Yorker, dramatizing for Western eyes a peculiar Tokyo-based company that caters to fulfilling nonsexual but undeniably intimate fantasies for its clientele. Weird? Yes, but so is the way Americans convince their kids to climb into the laps of white-bearded strangers in Santa costumes.
<em>Homo sapiens</em> are a strange species, and few capture that more satisfyingly than Herzog, even if this is clearly one of his minor works. Not quite 90 minutes, the film might actually be more effective at half the length. As is, it feels padded with slow-motion footage, long shots in which characters stare out in wordless contemplation, and an awkward dream sequence involving a gang of swordless samurai. But Herzog, as we know from such films as “Fata Morgana” and “Fitzcarraldo,” can be an absurdist poet — a spirit that comes through in the shape of this project, a scripted drama inspired by real events, which accentuates the exotic more than the universal side of its subject.
The film opens in Ueno Park, Tokyo, devoid of context or an opening sales pitch for the company that gives the film its title (no doubt, it would interest audiences to see how Family Romance positions its offerings). The cherry trees are in bloom, and the handsome gentleman in the three-piece suit standing by the wall could be a gigolo, for all we know. To a certain extent, he is, minus the more manual obligations of selling one’s company to lonely strangers. In the eyes of 12-year-old Mahoki Tamimoto, however, this stranger (Yuichi Ishii, as “himself”) could just as easily be her father — the very man he’s arranged to impersonate — and she shyly plays along with their “reunion.”
Does Mahoki know that this man is not her real dad, but a very special kind of escort whom her mother has hired to make her happy? That’s never entirely clear, since Herzog chooses to maintain a certain amount of mystery, introducing highly irregular situations in which audiences have to figure out where the line between reality and pantomime might be drawn — as in a later scene, when the rental dad stands in for a Japanese National Rail employee who’s being reprimanded for releasing one of the company’s always-punctual trains 20 seconds early (a tacky extrapolation of how one might use such a service that pokes fun at another of Japan’s odd-to-outsiders customs).
An entrepreneur whose unique business idea combines his instincts as actor and amateur shrink, Ishii founded Family Romance with the idea of role-playing relatives that clients can’t seem to live without. Straddling the line between documentary and fiction, Herzog withholds literal comment from “Family Romance, LLC” — his signature voice doesn’t come rolling in to offer aloof, empyrean judgments from on high, as it did in “Grizzly Man” and others — but is otherwise editorializing the whole way, as when paid-liar Ishii discovers that Mahoki hasn’t been entirely honest with him either.
When spending time with Mahoki, Ishii isn’t really trying to embody her father; he’s replacing the absentee parent with something better, a man who’s attentive and encouraging. He never shouts, never scolds, and he’s willing to do the things most workaholic dads would never make time for, such as taking her to one of Japan’s hedgehog cafés — where customers can rent time with the adorable little creatures, much like she does with her surrogate guardian, while Mahoki’s mother receives the bills for both.
The “LLC” in the film’s title is a clue that the movie wasn’t conceived purely in a spirit of empathy, although Herzog’s humor is good-natured enough. If anything, Family Romance is just the latest iteration of a uniquely human desire to replicate the relationships we can’t control in our lives, a thirst for virtual connections in the internet age (the service feels like the opposite of catfishing, since its adherents seek to deceive themselves).
While staying true to this general theme, the director digresses to visit a “robot hotel,” where Ishii spends a very long time studying a tank of virtual fish, and a funeral parlor where living people “seeking the experience of being dead” can climb into a coffin to stage their own memorials. Compared with these services, which feel as though they belong to the realm of speculative fiction (à la Ray Bradbury’s “Marionettes, Inc.”), Ishii’s work seems almost quaint, offering his customers a sense of closure for a bond they felt lacking in life.
But such “happiness” comes at a cost — not just the hourly wage Family Romance charges, but in terms of a certain emotional dependency that develops. Contracting Family Romance isn’t as simple as a one-off visit to one of Tokyo’s kitschy maid cafés — although it can be, the way an aspiring viral sensation hires them to pose as paparazzi, or another seeks to replicate the thrill of winning the lottery. Much like seeing a shrink or a chiropractor, neither of whom will ever admit to their patients being “cured,” these specialists want to keep the treatments open-ended — which means that breaking off such sessions could be as brutal as the trauma that prompted them in the first place. At least, that’s the observation that seems to inspire the film’s ending, in which Herzog finds it almost inevitable that one of Ishii’s clients should ask him to make the role official.