Werner Herzog’s disarmingly moving, meditative and elliptical latest follows the employees of a real Japanese company called Family Romance, LLC. The staff are all actors who pose as clients’ relatives, friends or colleagues and enact seemingly real scenarios with them. So, a woman hires an employee of the company to stand in as her alcoholic father at her wedding, avoiding social mortification in the process, and a wannabe influencer pays the company to provide fake paparazzi to hound her.
The German director somehow persuades Ishii Yuichi, the real-life owner and director of Family Romance, to play himself (or a ‘character’ very close to him). With an inquisitive camera, he captures Yuichi as he performs a series of staged sketches that range from the eccentric (a lottery winner who wants to relive the excitement of the moment it was announced that he had won) to the surreal (a railroad employee hires Yuichi to impersonate him in a meeting with his boss, to take the rap for a mistake).
The film’s main thread, and its most fictionalised element, has Yuichi hired to play the father of a 12-year-old daughter called Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto). He’s the dad who abandoned her mother when she was a baby and walked out on her. Only Yuichi clings to the girl and she to him, and the mother really tries to seduce him and invites him to live with them.
Through this complex scenario, Herzog probes at the moral and ethical implications of a business like Family Romance, giving the film an emotional weight that a straight documentary on the subject would struggle to match. Ask how we fill those voids in our lives when they appear, he’s saying, and you’ll realise that there are no easy answers.
Along the way, he takes us on a tour of a vibrant but discordant Tokyo, visiting a hotel where the receptionists and fish in the aquariums are robots. It’s another reality that feels staged but isn’t, in a movie that lives on the cusp of the two different states. Is Family Romance, LLC a docudrama? A meta-doc? Staged reality? However you define it, it’s enthralling, unsettling and typically Herzogian.