In the past Werner Herzog has given us a man pushing a ship up a mountain, a 16th-century conquistador going mad in Peru, Timothy Treadwell being eaten by a bear (who isn’t still recovering from that one?) and the 3-D documentary on cave paintings that ended with albino alligators, so there is never any saying what his next film will be about. Only that it’s likely to be quite weird. And Family Romance is quite weird. It’s real but fake (or vice versa) and filmed on the fly in the Japanese language even though Herzog doesn’t speak Japanese. And there’s more, so much more. It’s fascinatingly weird for sure. Even if, ultimately, it’s not satisfyingly weird.
Shot guerrilla-style in Tokyo with hand-held cameras for next to no money, and with Herzog using translators throughout, the film opens in a park during the cherry blossom season. A 12-year-old girl, Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto), is meeting the father (Ishii Yuichi) she hasn’t seen since she was 18 months old. The divorce from her mother was difficult, the father explains. He was forbidden contact. He would now like to get to know his daughter properly. They hang out and photograph the blossoms and they are both shy but delighted. But it later turns out that he is not her father. Her mother had hired a stand-in from Family Romance, a company whose employees are paid to pose as the person who might be missing from someone’s life. Now get this: Family Romance LLC actually exists in Japan. It does great business, apparently, and is owned and run by Ishii Yuichi, who is playing himself. How weird is that? Could you wish for weirder?
In the course of the film we meet a variety of Family Romance’s clients: the bride who wants to hire a father for her wedding day as her own is a drunk; the train company employee who needs someone to take the flak for a cock-up; the young woman who wants to be chased by paparazzi; the old woman who wants to relive the moment she won the lottery. Each vignette is scripted but performed by non-professional actors, which does set you thinking about actors. As Klaus Kinski had to push that ship up a mountain for real, is he actor or non-actor? But at the heart of the film is the developing relationship between Mahiro and the father she believes is her father but isn’t, and their visits to the park where Samurai battles are re-enacted or to a hedgehog café or a photo booth where images can be splattered with cute pink hearts. I was fascinated by everyday life in Tokyo as much as anything, and similarly fascinated by a detour to a robot hotel with robot fish in its fish tanks.
This is about modern-day loneliness, I suppose, but more than that it’s asking us to consider if the fake can be true, and even an improvement on the truth, or if the truth can be fake. Are we all role-playing within our own families? What if a fake someone says something to you that’s truer than something a real person in your life might say? Morally, though, it doesn’t know what line to take and how to deal with its subject matter. While Yuichi does question himself — ‘every day I play many roles and wonder if I’m doing the right thing’ — he is never presented as anything other than a decent and honourable fellow. But maybe that is why he agreed to be involved? Tricky. And this is partly why the film isn’t ultimately satisfying, as it leaves you to draw your own conclusions — always a drag — and allows Herzog to meander and drift rather than knuckle down and actually say something. Also, he lets all the storylines fizzle out at the end, without offering the audience any sense of closure, moral or otherwise. But the 90 minutes skip by breezily enough, the cherry blossom is spectacular, and it does set you thinking. In all sorts of ways. About all sorts of things.