A few weeks back, The New Yorker ran a mesmerizing, semi-hallucinatory article from Pulitzer finalist Elif Batuman, taking a deep dive into the world of Japan’s rental family industry. For the unfamiliar, that’s exactly what it sounds like: People in need of a family member, on a one-time or persistent basis, hiring an actor to stand in for their spouse, their parent, their child, and more. Now, Batuman’s article—which, understandably, focuses mostly on the more long-term rental relationships, which can sometimes last for years—has just been optioned for a TV series by Paramount TV, presumably attempting to localize this peculiar, weirdly intimate practice for Western eyes.
For what it’s worth, the role of professional fake family dates back thousands of years; “professional mourners” were picking up sad side jobs crying at funerals all the way back in ancient Egypt. The practice picked up its more personal touch in Japan in the early ’90s, though, at least in part due to a conflict between changing work and family culture—with more women entering the workforce, and more young people opting out of early marriages and families—and a more traditional need to present a cohesive familial unit. Hence the guy, briefly profiled in Batuman’s piece, who hired fake parents to stand in for his dead ones at his wedding to his wife. (When he finally told her the truth, years later, she apparently thanked him for removing a source of potential awkwardness from their special day.)
Much of Batuman’s article centers on Yuichi Ishii, who’s not only the founder of rental firm Family Romance—which, fittingly, takes its name from an essay by Freud—but also one of its top performers. Among other options, Ishii’s company offers a service that plans and throws an entire fake wedding for a client over the course of months, and he frequently—as in, as many as a dozen times—steps in to play the fictitious groom. (From the article: “Ishii tries to pretend he’s acting in a movie, but often, he says, ‘I feel like I’m really getting married to this woman.’”) We’ve actually written about Ishii’s most complicated long-term gig before; for more than a decade, he’s served as the fake father to a little girl who was being bullied because she came from a single-parent home, and who has no idea that “Inaba” isn’t actually her dad. The New Yorker piece dives even further into this strangeness by interviewing Ishii alongside the girl’s clearly smitten mother; needless to say, it’s fucked up and fascinating in roughly equal measure.
Presumably, Paramount is hoping that same level of interest will develop alongside this new show; co-produced by Anonymous Content, the scripted series is treading into territory that sounds sitcom-esque, but which actually dials into all sorts of complicated questions about how our relationships actually work. (At one point, after recounting the story of a guy whose fake daughter convinced him to get back in touch with his real one, Ishii expresses his goal of making his entire business model redundant in a similar way.) There’s potential here to talk about grief, love, loss, and a whole bunch of other messy human feelings that lie at the center of Batuman’s piece, hopefully without diving into the world of farcical Three’s Company nonsense along the way.