In the opening scene of Family Romance, LLC, twelve-year-old Mahiro unites with her father Yuichi, from whom she has been separated since she was very young. They meet in Tokyo’s Yoyogi park and a relationship begins as they talk and enjoy the park’s festivities. It is later revealed that Yuichi has been hired by Mahiro’s mother to act as her father for the day; Mahiro’s real biological father remains absent. Mahiro doesn’t know any better and thinks that Yuichi indeed is her real father, and throughout the film they continue to meet as Mahiro becomes more attached to Yuichi. The entire film is set around companies in Japan, like the one that Yuichi manages, in which patrons can hire someone to act a part in their life.
Director Werner Herzog intricately blends reality and fiction together in the film. Family Romance is the name of the real-life company that exists in Japan, and there are many other companies that give the same type of services. In the film, Yuichi plays himself and many real-life events are reenacted. For example, one employee acts in a wedding so the bride can have a father for her big day. In another vignette, Yuichi enacts the event of a woman winning the lottery again so she can feel the joy and happiness she once experienced. Much of the film shows these events as fiction, though much of it is based upon factual events.
Herzog challenges the ethical nature and morality of the practice of companies like Family Romance. Some events, such as reenacting the lottery win or even being a father to a bride, hold less of a moral dilemma than others, such as playing father to Mahiro. Mahiro won’t know any better, but it should be her right to know that she’s being duped. Also, later in the film Mahiro’s mother even becomes attached to Yuichi and because of this he discusses the death of his character. Characters must die in these companies, as the lies and deceptions cannot be kept up forever. Additionally, Herzog less directly hints at the selfishness of these businesses. They exist only for the wealthy or those who have saved for specific occasions.
In much of the film, Herzog directs like he has in recent documentaries, such as Grizzly Man, Into the Inferno, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Happy People. He studies and fixates on different cultural practices, places that were unknown to him, and unusual and unique characters. Family Romance, LLC, blends these qualities with docu-fiction techniques and Herzog’s skills in narrative filmmaking. For these reasons, Family Romance reflects upon his career and is the film which bridges the gap between his fiction and documentaries. While the film demonstrates this connection, it remains mostly banal and uneventful. The exploration of the family romance companies and the themes of benevolent deception and capitalistic role-playing are useful and thought-provoking, but the narrative aspect and camera techniques do not present anything new or inspiring. Overall, the film will be known as an interesting but minor film in the director’s repertoire.