At a time when the world is experiencing a collective solitude imposed by the coronavirus, one wonders how much more solitude the human race can cope with. And yet, existential solitude is not new to humanity; industrialisation has for long created a world where loneliness and alienation follow faithfully their twins " development and progress. Everything that is natural is made to recede except man made parks, gardens, aquariums and reserved forest areas.
It is perhaps too much to be human. Our fate is to become robotic and humanity is moving in that singular direction at the same speed at which the universe itself is expanding. Astronomers tell us that at some point everything in the universe will come unstuck, the subatomic particles will begin to pull away from one another and the universe will enter the Big RIP. The 21st century " or to use Herzog's phrase, the "century of solitudes" " will most likely also be the century of pandemics. So many more cousins of COVID wait in the wings for the right time to jump across the barrier of our skins.
Sitting in our tiny hot cells of existence we surf one online wave after another in pursuit of something other than ourselves. Someday you land on a wave, where for a brief moment you glimpse a rare but essential truth about human existence: that even without the virus, there is an immense emptiness that refuses to fill itself.
One such film, made only last year by master filmmaker Werner Herzog and recently released on MUBI, captures this slow falling apart of humanity. It is ironically named Family Romance LLC: family, where romance gives way to everyday familiarity, and the slow erosion of intimacy is resurrected as the final frontier of romance but only to flatter.
Japan, the most industrialised nation of the world " more specifically, its capital city Tokyo " is the location of the film. The nation that first gave us the Walkman, the Camcorder and the Bullet train presents a solution, or what seems like one, for that intractable human condition called loneliness. Its solutions are rather simple, even if inelegant: inflatable human dolls and robots as companions among others and now a firm that rents out family members, and won't hesitate to rent out a death. This may seem like a cynical business and it is, and yet it is not, for it recognises the eternal need of humans to connect with other humans even if under a pretense, and even if only to fail.
At the heart of the film is a moral dilemma: can life be reduced to the purely performative? And what happens if the performance is perceived as real? What is to be done with the real, when the performance ends? And the larger question: what is real, what is performative? Where does one begin and where does the other end?
Herzog's film is an intricate interplay of these two modes of being. All the situations in the film are staged but the emotions that bring them into play and the emotions that are evoked in the participants are beyond doubt, real.
Yuichi Ichii, the protagonist of the film, who runs the enterprise Family Romance in real life as well, plays himself in the film, though the situations in the film are created, scripted and staged. But there is no saying that these may not already have happened to someone somewhere.
Twelve-year-old Mahiro longs to meet her father, who she is told separated from her mother when she was two years of age. It is an extraordinary and elaborate lie. Her father in fact died a long time ago. In the not unexpected logic of the narrative, she has to be protected from truth. Truth is too much. It needs mediation. A softer blow than the mind numbing impact of the knowledge of her father's death is replaced by a more manageable lie: the breakup of the family.
Her mother contacts Yuichi, the owner of the firm Family Romance, to meet her daughter as her father and to spend time with her so that she may experience a father's love, care and attention. Yuichi is a master performer, who plays the role so well that the girl wants to live with him for she believes they are indeed father and daughter. To complicate matters, her mother too falls in love with Yuichi and invites him to come live with them. She wants, like Mahiro, the fiction of family to turn real.
But Yuichi refuses, for the boundary between life and play cannot be allowed to merge. His clients are not supposed to fall in love with him. He is not to love them. It is only a game and both sides must participate in the full knowledge of the rules of the game. He must put a stop to this game for the game is running away itself.
He proposes a solution. (He is always full of solutions.) He offers to stage his own death to get out of this conundrum. But even this is a business deal for him. He asks Mahiro's mother to rent a death to get out of this complicated web of lies. In an earlier scene we see him lying down in a coffin, preparing for an event where he might be required to simulate a death. Like a master chess player, he has already anticipated the next move in this game of switching identities.
He becomes so invested in this game of exchanging masks that he doesn't know when to stop. Even as he lies down in a coffin that is too small for him, he doesn't know that he is already not fully alive. That he has achieved the human parallel of machines, mechanical emotions.
Every human emotion has a business equivalent in this universe. A woman who wins a lottery of 20 million yen knows this is not a feat she can ever hope to repeat again so she contacts Yuichi to restage the experience of being a winner. This was the most intimate and the most intense moment of her existence and needs repetition, again and again.
Another woman wants to feel like a celebrity pursued by the paparazzi. Yet another man, an employee of the intercity railways, wants Yuichi to share the blame for releasing a train 20 seconds before its time causing national shame to the company. He risks losing his job but skillfully deflects it onto Yuichi, who saves him.
Curiously enough most clients of the firm are women " overwhelmed with feelings, unable to contain them " and the actors performing the roles of missing relatives are male actors. It is as if the roles have been divided: women are clients and men are actors. Perhaps this is an indication no less of the neat division of feeling and instrumental rationality, feminine and masculine modes of being in the Jungian sense.
The real is replaced with an eternal replay of ceremony: the ceremony of family rituals, devoid of meaning. A bride in the film replaces her father for he is an alcoholic, an embarrassment; he must be withdrawn from the world, hidden, his place given to an imposter, who can perform well a role the real father has not been able to and is now not allowed to.
A telling moment in the film is an old black telephone box that connects no one to no one. It just sits there on a rock by the sea for people to call up a deceased person. The deceased cannot return calls; the living can, but they refuse to stir. As Mahiro's mother's desperate attempt to connect with Yuichi shows. Yuichi himself is shown having no relationships except with his clients. In his dreams he sees samurai kill each other without weapons. He is interested in hotels run by robots where even the fish in the aquarium are little robots. He asks the owner of the hotel if the robots can dream. It is a strange paradox that as humans run away from their own feelings, they want machines to take on the burden of feeling and thinking like humans.
The film ends with Yuichi wondering if his family members are also not actors performing their roles. Something begins to stir in him finally after his encounter with Mahiro and her mother and he is no longer so sure about the illusions he so willingly creates to bring some happiness into the lives of other people. The film begins with a virtuoso performance and ends with the real in the shape of a child's face visible against a frosted glass door and the protagonist unable to face that direct and blameless gaze of a child.
This is a deeply disturbing film but also a defining film of our time: a film not just about Japan but about a deeper malaise at the heart of capitalism which turns everything into a commodity; it is a film about human inability to not resist the undoable and to persist in it; a film that challenges the convention of both fiction and documentary filmmaking. Only Herzog could have made this film with so much compassion and so much daring.
Vijaya Singh is a film scholar, an alumna of FTII, Pune and a bilingual poet. She has published two books " Level Crossing: Railway Journeys in Hindi Cinema and First Instinct. She is also the director of two short films, Unscheduled Arrivals and Andhere Mein.