“Maybe it was my other daughter.”
Turning toward the bathroom, I realized what my mom had already noticed: The garbage can was overturned. I emptied the trash and forgot to put it back in its original position. In a flurry of chores, I was not consciously trying to leave it awry. Maybe this “other daughter” would not have been so absentminded. It is a phrase I spent too much time thinking about. I returned the garbage can, and I wondered what impressions this “other daughter” had. Her ambiguous existence took on a new meaning every time my mother mentioned her.
I thought about this situation more poignantly the first seven years of my life. I’ve re-written it upon spending Christmas with my older half-sister every other year since I was eight. I do not know where to start wondering about my younger half-sister, having never met her and being able to recall only two images of her. I’ve built an idea of her in my mind. Some of that image is true, but most of it is unknown.
Family Romance, LLC begins with Yuichi Ishii, but we do not know him as Yuichi. He’s an actor of sorts, slipping into people’s lives and filling in as a friend, a father, or a coworker. His clients need him for filling gaps — Yuichi can be an alibi, a date, a body in the audience at a kid’s recital. At the beginning of this film, he is the long-lost father to this young girl, Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto). He’s come back for her after all this time. He is earnest and kind to Mahiro, who is unsure what to make of him. She is hesitant but curious. While introducing himself, he tells her he had another family after he left, but he wants to build a relationship with her now. It is everything anyone wants to hear when meeting a lost relative, someone whose absence can determine so much about the person one becomes, the person Mahiro is becoming. Usually, in fiction, it is the child who appears in a man’s life, and the man soon becomes consumed with fatherhood; in Family Romance, LLC, the father meets her, yet Mahiro still acts as the catalyst for her father’s development.
In my mom’s Yahoo email, there’s a picture of a little girl with braids brushing her teeth. She was everything and nothing I could have imagined at that point, but I thought about how similar she would be to my older half-sister and me. We are each, in a way, anchors in my father’s life. If my sister and I represent him managing adulthood in the United States, she was his attempt at managing it in China. Our stories may have some sort of narrative resonance, but he is the only reference I have to her. When my grandmother died, what little tied my youngest half-sister and I dissipated with her.
I was a little curious about the picture of the girl in the braids when I first saw it, but nothing compelled me to reach out. My family is split or broken off at this point. Our family tree has fruit hanging on disparate, lonely branches. But some of us make attempts to reattach what grew broken. My sister and I talk every so often about our lives, movies, bad reality TV. Earlier in 2020, we talked about Love Is Blind. In December, we discussed our favorite Christmas films. 90 Day Fiancé has been a metronome for this pandemic; it at least offers excuses to reach out. Recounting mundane details connects us. With distance and time, we did not see each other often before the pandemic; COVID-19 has cemented our infrequent schedule. And I guess the only time our family saw one another was at weddings or funerals. My grandfather followed my grandmother after a couple of months, so I did not revisit the information regarding my younger sister. She fell out of sight and out of mind. To invoke a common refrain too close for comfort, if I had known then what I knew now, I would have made a different choice. I tried jogging my mother’s memory about the email, offering as much metadata as I could recall after five years. My search bore no fruit.
Family Romance, LLC focuses on Yuichi playing a variety of roles. In one scene, Yuichi is a paparazzi for an aspiring famous person who awkwardly poses in front of him and a host of hired actors, all snapping photographs. While the movie may pepper in the other roles he plays and other relationships he balances, the story is centered on his relationship with Mahiro — the sole genuine one he seems to have. Between scenes of Yuichi and Mahiro, there are dream sequences of men fighting and dying cosplaying as samurai, a scene where Yuichi visits a robot hotel, and a scene where he attempts to make peace with himself, lying in a coffin. Yuichi is trapped between the pressure of performing intimacy and a sudden anxiety about his job. Yuichi is not exempt from capitalist accumulation, as implied by his visit to the robot hotel. Director Werner Herzog shows us uncanny mechanical fish as well as more high-tech, convincing animatronics: robot concierges, who bow, blink, and speak nearly like real people. Yuichi’s particular brand of “humanness” is potentially being commodified, made artificial. His interest in the coffin is, initially, to perform death scenes, but he blurs this question with his actual desire to escape this industry. The film clearly shows the consequences and anxieties of performing intimate labor.
Yuichi Ishii and Family Romance, LLC, are both real. They were the subjects of an April 2018 New Yorker article about Japan’s “rent-a-family” industry. Ishii apparently found the name in an essay by Sigmund Freud. The piece tells his story while describing this industry, defining “family romance,” and offering an anecdote about a man who was able to connect with his daughter through the service. The article’s writer, novelist Elif Batuman, has been interested throughout her career in the legal and political dimensions of narratives. After she wrote The Idiot, a semi-autobiographical book about a university student, she found herself rebutting criticisms that her personal experiences were part of the novel, quietly exclaiming, what does it matter if her book is a novelization of her life? Does attaching the truth to a fictional narrative make it any less significant? That shaky relationship between truth and fiction is the heart of her New Yorker article — what if the relationship between the man in the story and his rent-a-wife and daughter is an explicit financial transaction? Does it make their relationship less impactful?
Throughout the nineties and early 2000s, many romantic comedy plots centered on romantic fabrication — My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Wedding Date, Pretty Woman. The protagonist usually lies about some aspect of themselves or lies to close family members, etc., but the protagonist usually wins out after having to reveal the truth. Borrowing from Frank Krutnik, the writer Celestino Deleyto describes this particular structure as the “deception narrative”: “For Krutnik, although romantic comedies of the 1990s betray an awareness of the artificiality of romantic conventions, the texts still want to believe in them, using this artificiality as a new basis for the articulation of love in their narratives.”
The deception narrative presumes the validity of the romance through the very improbable “meet-cute.” While these films, for the most part, are played as breezy romances, full of twists and turns, they actually endorse pretty toxic demonstrations of heterosexual romance. In While You Were Sleeping, Sandra Bullock’s character goes headstrong into faking a relationship with a man who did not consent to one, but the movie still ends with a conventional romance. The Truth About Cats & Dogs, which could be considered a low-culture adaptation of Cyrano, also plays fast and loose with consent. It is hard to imagine how the film would fare if it were released now, but it may not be as widely derided as the most recent adaptation of the play, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. As of late, romantic comedies have redirected their goal, and instead of directing us to follow the protagonists of these films in their romantic ventures, filmmakers are beginning to show us who this protagonist is, as shown in Ingrid Goes West or even Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Whether or not these protagonists learn to deal with the consequences of abruptly throwing themselves into a variety of situations for the Hollywood heterosexual romance, these new shows and movies at least communicate to us that “falling in love with the lie” will not save us.
Family Romance, LLC is all about loving the lie. It’s a job hazard for Yuichi, as he cannot get too attached to his customers or develop any real feelings for his clients. The lies and characters that Yuichi and his company construct are just narratives, after all, like stories from family dramas or romantic comedies. Some of these relationships, however, are considered more terminable than others. According to Batuman’s article, single mothers fare the worst in this client dependency. The approach usually taken is to wean them off with infrequent visits, but in some instances, the article notes, “relationships have to be terminated.” In the film, facing this situation, Yuichi runs off.
At the beginning of quarantine, I remember reaching out to family members where my only connection to them was Facebook updates. It was usually either a WhatsApp message asking “How are you and your mom holding up?” or a prolonged Zoom call, with me attempting to reconcile the relative I knew years ago to the person now presented in front of me. It was nice to meet or talk to family members to whom I have not spoken in years, but as the pandemic continued, the communication regressed to pre-pandemic living. This touch-and-go communication overwhelms my discomfort with being alone. Isolation can wreak havoc on your emotional well-being, but I am also afraid of what happens if and when the pandemic ends: What lies in its wake? Am I capable of offering and receiving the intimacy I want? Every Zoom meeting is punctuated by this fear of whether this will be the last call or just the last call for a long while. I have to imagine closure for the unknown, and I am not ready to face either option.
This year felt like retracing old ground. I took Chinese in college in preparation for the possibility of at least attempting to communicate with my younger sister in the future. I imagined there would be a point in time I would get to meet her. Now, three years after graduating college, I am retaking Chinese lessons. At the beginning of the pandemic, I tried reaching out again. I wrote the message in Mandarin. I asked my friends to check my grammar and make sure my message was coming across clearly. I have perfected an art form of making futile gestures. I do not bother questioning whether to salvage any hope.
A little more than a year after the New Yorker article’s debut, NHK, a Japan’s public broadcaster, had to apologize for airing an “inaccurate description” regarding the rent-a-family concept. There is the distinct possibility that some sources were actually paid actors from Ishii’s company. Plus, the location and phone number for Family Romance, LLC, were unverifiable upon closer inspection. After learning this, I remained conflicted on whether it added to the complications of this industry or if I was supposed to feel betrayed for believing in a story that was based on inaccuracies. I decided to remain mystified. In the end, what does it matter?
The film ends with Yuichi returning to his own home. He has a kid, who’s pressing their hands against the frosted glass. But he can’t go inside, and he slumps down on the doorstep. He is exhausted, having to balance the many lives he created in the city and the real one still waiting for him inside. I always wondered if it was easy to untie yourself from a relationship that is normally considered forever binding. Ishii acts like it is difficult to leave so much behind, which is a credit to him as an actor. I would like to assume it would be difficult despite what may be true.
But to posit an idea a little more fruitful, in my perfect world, if I were to get the chance to meet my sister, I would want to slowly but surely, bit by bit, build something as close to sisterhood and as a family as either of us can offer.
At this moment in time, I cannot muster the zeal to extend my imagination this far. I will always abate my excitement, knowing this will most likely never occur. This is also the place, the anxiety, centering Family Romance, LLC and some of the romantic comedies mentioned previously. It is easy for an actor to instill a feeling of intimacy with someone who craves it. And it is easy to fall in, whether that is love, or whatever feeling there is a solid lack of and seems so much more pronounced in one’s isolation, it so easy to get engulfed by a hint of a relationship that is forever out of reach. But despite where the story of that feeling may lead, closure is not always promised. For an agency like Family Romance, the slow fade-out, the dissipation from someone’s life, is on the table; it is a professional and methodical way to end a relationship. But the abrupt termination, Yuichi running away, feels the most true.
The only satisfactory possibility I can conceive is a Zoom call where she can choose whether or not to know our family. If it is not something she would be comfortable with, I could also offer an easy answer for not wanting to proceed. I would want her to feel like she is not alone. Right now, I can manage with just a name and a face for this “other daughter,” but both her and the idea of her becomes more elusive as time passes. Even if we met, I doubt I’ll ever be at ease talking about her. I imagine I will always be left wondering.
MARIE JOHNSON is currently living in the Bay Area, attempting to get a Masters in International Law. She studied International Studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, and when she is not studying or writing, she loves spending time with her friends and family.