The German filmmaker Werner Herzog has always been interested in exploring non-Western based cultures, within his larger interest in the tumultuous relationship between nature and man. With his film “Family Romance, LLC” (2019), which is set in Japan with Japanese actors speaking in their own native language, Herzog has once again created a fascinating portrayal of a non-Western culture. “Family Romance, LLC” also serves as a cautionary tale about the increasingly isolating effects of modern day technology, a subject which Herzog has been exploring continuously in his documentaries and narrative feature films.
Although it is a fictional, narrative film, “Family Romance, LLC” has a naturalistic and almost cinéma vérité quality to it that resembles a documentary. Herzog cast non-professional actors, but he is able to successfully elicit from them authentic, realistic portrayals of their characters. Family Romance, LLC is about Yuichi Ishii, the owner of the business in the film’s title, which rents out human companions to those who feel isolated from society and need some sort of made-up family member or social contact to accompany them. Although we see Yuichi with various clients of his family rental business throughout the film, “Family Romance, LLC” primarily focuses on the relationship between Yuichi and Mahiro, the young daughter of the widowed and lonely Miki Fujimaki.
Miki hires Yuichi to serve as Mahiro’s surrogate father, as Mahiro never met her real-life father. Yuichi invents a story that he left Mahiro’s mother when she was young, but wants to start to get to know her as his daughter. The resulting familial drama plays out almost like a Yasujirō Ozu or Hirokazu Kore-eda film, but it is also distinctly a Herzog film with its unique filmmaking style. Just as Herzog filmed awe-inspiring aerial shots of the Amazon jungle in his earlier films, he shoots astonishing drone-footage of the natural landscapes of Japan. Japan is known for its technology, but Herzog still wants to point out the commanding existence of nature that still persists amidst the urbanized environment.
Herzog served as the cinematographer of “Family Romance, LLC” himself, using a small, non-obtrusive 4K video camera, and purposefully keeping his distance from the actors to allow them the space to create realistic characters. Indeed, all the performances in “Family Romance, LLC,” from the bit roles to the leading roles, feel genuinely authentic and free of all theatrical artifice. By filming “Family Romance, LLC” away from the constraints of Hollywood studio filmmaking demands, Herzog instills the film with a sense of liberation and new possibilities in cinema. There are very few traditional establishing shots, or cutaway shots to different framing perspectives, and Herzog does this on purpose because he is more interested in filming reality than creating an artificial studio product. We as viewers know that the images we are seeing are reflections of Herzog himself, so in a way “Family Romance, LLC” is the ultimate auteurist project.
The handheld quality of the images gives “Family Romance, LLC” the feel at times of viewing home videos, or something akin to the many personal videos we see so many times online of family vacations and social gatherings. Thus, using new technology, Herzog is creating a film that is made in the tradition of modern day, online streaming videos. Indeed, technology is very much a major theme in “Family Romance, LLC,” as Herzog is exploring how the increasingly isolating effects of technological advances, as we spend more times living in a virtual world dominated by our phones and tablets, has resulted in an absence of intimate, real-life contacts. Thus, Yuichi is able to have a thriving business renting out a semblance of personal interactions with imaginary family members to fill this void. At times throughout the film, Herzog will slow down the footage to emphasize the comfort that Yuichi’s business brings to his clients, as in a moving scene when Yuichi stages a lottery win for an elderly woman who lives by herself, and the camera lingers on the woman’s smiling face.
Yuichi’s business of bringing people closer together with what are essentially false relationships is Herzog’s commentary on the fragility of real family and personal ties in the modern world. The line between what are true, biological family connections and virtual relationships with people we meet online are blurred; in many cases, we feel closer to those people we communicate solely with online than those we know in the outside, physical world. Yuichi offers a sort of combination of these two experiences, since he is creating intimate relationships between people who are ultimately not truly connected with each other in real life. Herzog understands this contradiction in Yuichi’s business, and the last image of the film is a haunting reminder of how disconnected we as a society are to the real world.
From his earlier films like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo,” to his later films like “Grizzly Man,” Herzog has always been interested in exploring human’s tumultuous relationship with nature, and our incessant need to conquer and control nature. As a result, humans have resorted to creating their own sort of nature through technology by creating a virtual online world, in the hopes of getting instant fame or connections with others through our various mobile devices. In an amusing sequence in “Family Romance, LLC,” a woman hires Yuichi to follow her around with a fake entourage of photographers in the hopes of becoming famous online.
In another scene in “Family Romance, LLC,” Yuichi visits a hotel staffed by robots to see if he can start replacing his rented out family members with robotic employees. The human and the technological worlds have merged at this hotel, but Herzog continuously focuses on the eerie nature of the robotic greeters and workers; although they attempt to emulate a semblance of humanity, they ultimately are still nothing more than robotic machines. More recently, Herzog explored this concept of technological dissonance most explicitly with his film “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World,” which portrayed how artificial intelligence and robotics are permanently altering the human world.
With “Family Romance, LLC,” Herzog is examining what is possibly the next logical step in intimate relationships in an increasingly fast-paced, technologized world, as we start replacing our real-life family and personal connections with online, virtual relationships. As Yuichi, Miki, and Mahiro grow closer together in their invented relationships with each other, Yuichi starts to see the danger in this, as he is unable to separate his real-life relationships with his created ones. Herzog asks us to re-examine our reliance on technology and its fabricated realities, and to see what it is that truly makes us human. For Herzog, the familial love between a real mother, father, and daughter is more authentic than any virtually created connection.
- Film Review: Family Romance, LLC