Your Kontinent 2014: Rent a Family examines Japanese real-life stand-ins for hire

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How would you feel if you discovered your spouse, who you thought was going to a regular job every day, was also hired by different clients to play the role of various people, including family members, partners, colleagues, and more in real life?

That's what 44-year-old Japanese father Ryuichi Ichinokawa does—without his wife knowing it. In addition to working at a toy factory, he runs a side business, Hagemashi Tai (I Want to Cheer You Up), in which his staff members are hired to stand in for an assortment of roles.

While Japanese people and culture have garnered a reputation for having some of the most peculiar things in the world, some understanding of the social context is necessary.

With group identity emphasized over individuality in Japanese society, the need to maintain social harmony, the need to fulfill social expectations, and the need to "save face", can easily become an all-consuming endeavour. Anything unharmonious, disruptive, or unpleasant is frowned upon.

In the 1990s, rent-a-friend businesses arose in Japan to fulfil unmet emotional needs—this was the price the country was paying for the impact that economic success had on the increasingly fragmented family unit. Actors provided social companionships for lonely people, such as grandparents who rented out actors to play the role of adult children or grandchildren with whom they could interact with.

Due to social changes in Japan due to the recession and other factors (such as increases in divorces, increased unemployment of businessmen, women becoming more independent, and more), these businesses appear to have shifted to fulfill more of a social need.

Ichinokawa's business is one such example.

The documentary, by Danish director Kaspar Astrup Schröder, follows Ichinokawa as he and his staff are hired to perform roles in various real-life social situations, including pretending to be the new husband of a woman asking for child support from her ex-husband or acting as members of a wedding party for a man who has no family or friends.

The documentary reveals that Ichinokawa's own personal life is bereft of emotional intimacy: he's often physically away from his family or remains emotionally estranged, he sleeps separately from his wife, and his wife doesn't even know—or care—what his profession is.

While the documentary provides intriguing details about Ichinokawa's job and his contrasting personal life, the broader social context might escape those who aren't going in with an understanding of Japanese culture.

Nonetheless, it's a fascinating examination of how some people in Japan are attempting to cope with contemporary pressures. Even if this phenomenon doesn't manifest in this form in North America, we can all reflect upon how our relationships have changed to adapt to the modern, and increasingly detached, social world. 

Rent a Family screens at Your Kontinent International Film and Media Arts Festival on July 26 at the Richmond Cultural Centre (7700 Minoru Gate, Richmond).

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