AFI Docs Review: “Rent a Family Inc.”

A look at one man’s side gig as a temporary family member explores loneliness and the frailty of human connection.

By: Leslie Milk

Ryuichi Ichinokawa works at the margins of the Japanese economy—doing odd jobs, delivering packages, helping at a catering company. But the oddest job of all is the one he’s invented for himself.

Ichinokawa rents himself out to masquerade as the father, husband, or friend for perfect strangers who need a stand-in at an event or special occasion. He has a staff to call upon if he can’t fill the required role or the client needs a crowd. It’s all part of what Ichinokawa calls his “I want to cheer you up” service. And it’s the subject of Danish documentary filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s Rent a Family Inc.

The landscape of Ichinokawa’s real life is lonely, barren, and bleak. His wife and two sons treat him with contempt. He has to sleep on the floor of a child’s room while his wife and preteen son share the marital bed. His only source of meaningful affection is his dog.

Ichinokawa only comes alive when he is pretending to be someone else—the new husband of a divorcée who needs help getting her ex to pay child support, or the father of a young woman whose boyfriend wants parental permission for moving in together. The fact that Ichinokawa’s clients need to rent stand-ins reveals poignantly that he is not alone in feeling alone.

Rent a Family Inc. offers a unique glimpse into Japanese life beyond the stereotypes of “salarymen” and karaoke. In Japanese with English subtitles, this film is well worth seeing for its insight into the isolation of modern life.

Playing June 21, 2:15 PM, at the Goethe-Institut, and June 22, 12:45 PM, at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.