Thursday, May 02, 2013

Rent A Family Inc. isn't what you might expect

Ryuichi runs a rather unusual company called I Want To Cheer You Up Ltd., but this Japanese man seems like he could use a lot more cheering up than his clients.

Ryuichi stands in to impersonate husbands, brothers and friends for Tokyo citizens who believe they need his services -- or those of the more than 20 people he employs to fill similar roles. His job is unique enough that he's asked to appear on a television show similar to (for those of you old enough to remember) What's My Line?, where he describes his profession while his face is blurred so his cover isn't ruined.

We soon learn, however, that Ryuichi's occupation is even a mystery to his wife and two sons. The wife says she never asks about his work, but finds different uniforms when she does laundry -- a byproduct of him having to take other jobs to make ends meet since I Want To Cheer You Up isn't as lucrative as he'd like and he finds himself in financial trouble.

When Ryuichi isn't away from home, the 44-year-old mostly sleeps on a mattress on the floor in his son's former bedroom -- since the boy now sleeps in a bed with his mother. And when Ryuichi is awake, he blocks out his family to focus on his website to try and build his business. His wife admits there's tension between them because they don't have meaningful conversations.

While Ryuichi claims that his focus is on making other people happy, it's at the expense of his family's happiness. For a man who earns part of his (meagre) living from impersonating husbands, he's doing a poor job of playing a real one.

Ryuichi dotes on his dog while complaining that his wife takes good care of their home, but not of him, and that she has a negative attitude. She concedes that she doesn't know if she'll stay with him after their sons leave for college in seven years.

One moment, Ryuichi shows us travel brochures and talks of his dream of taking his wife and kids on a Hawaiian vacation. The next moment, he confesses that he thinks of killing himself every day.

Ryuichi comes clean near the end of the movie and tells his wife about I Want To Cheer You Up and the financial distress they're facing. She thinks it's strange, which he expected, but says she doesn't care what he does. She just doesn't want to be part of it.

Getting this weight off his shoulders seems to lighten Ryuichi up emotionally and it appears that he's adopted a more positive outlook -- though things remain far from idyllic at home.

I went into Rent A Family Inc. expecting a quirky, relatively lighthearted documentary about an occupation and ways of life unique to Japanese culture (companies like I Want To Cheer You Up are apparently becoming more common). What I came away from was actually a pretty depressing film about a lonely man and a far from happy home.

I would have preferred the movie I anticipated.

Rent A Family Inc. will have its final showing of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at 1 p.m. on May 5 at Scotiabank Theatre.

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