A man in a perfect suit waits in Yoyogi Park for someone as Herzog’s camera captures a girl who has walked past him multiple times, scoping him out and waiting to approach. Immediately, Herzog is thinking more like a documentarian. It’s clear most people in the park are not extras, but just people going about their lives. The camera regularly wanders away to the cherry blossoms or people playing in the park. But it keeps returning to the man, who is named Yuichi Ishii and the 12-year-old girl he is supposed to meet named Mahiro. Yuichi tells Mahiro that he is her missing father, someone she hasn’t seen in years and barely remembers. It is an awkward, touching reunion. None of it is real.
It turns out that Ishii owns a company called Family Romance LLC, from which people can “hire” family members. Are you in a situation where the father of the bride is too alcoholic to attend his daughter’s wedding? Call Family Romance. The business is real, and Yuichi Ishii is its actual owner. At the request of Mahiro’s mother, he’s pretending to be her father to offer emotional support and report back on how she’s doing to mom.
Herzog is clearly fascinated by the entire concept of surrogate family members, and his direction here uses it in an unexpected, loose way. Reportedly, much of the dialogue was improvised, and the filmmaking feels similarly organic and on-the-fly. Scenes go on too long, awkward moments are allowed to hang in the air, conversations are filmed from one angle with no coverage—”Family Romance LLC” often looks and feels like it’s capturing reality more than filmed storytelling, and the metatextual approach enhances the entire experience. Ishii is a man who pretends to be other people, who is pretending to be himself in Herzog’s film. It’s a fascinating Möbius strip of reality and fiction.
Even as Yuichi starts to express existential concern about his chosen profession—“Every day, I feel uneasy”—Herzog refuses to succumb to traditional narrative melodrama. He not only knows that audiences will be aware of the many odd conceits of his film but uses those to his advantage. When a phone rings during a meeting with an oracle, it clearly wasn’t intended, but Herzog didn’t retake the scene. He lets life intrude, breaking the illusion of filmmaking in the same way that the people who hire Ishii’s company often know it’s not “real,” but they go along with it anyway. It becomes a film about the everyday artifice that so many people use to get through life. Ishii even questions if maybe someone hired his parents. It’s about the lies we tell ourselves from both sides of a relationship and how they can become truth. Ishii starts to care about Mahiro, realizing the façade impacts him as much as his clients.