In a certain respect, film is the best medium to really capture artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, the weathered, adorable, frustrating, and loving Japanese couple at the heart of director Zachary Heinzerling’s debut feature ‘Cutie and the Boxer’. After all, the opening scene gazes for just a minute or two at Ushio’s most distinct method, moving right to left, punching a blank canvas with boxing gloves smothered in paint. His wife Noriko, married to him for forty years, stands idly by his movements, snapping pictures as he slams his fists into his quickly applied artwork, straight-lined dripping splotches of kinetic energy.
It is indeed an exemplary way to introduce us to these diverse and puzzling characters, whose whole life has been devoted to artwork and its long, grueling process. In the film, Ushio has just turned 80, celebrated modestly with a small dessert and candle that illuminates their even more modest living quarters. She serves him dinner in their closet sized Dumbo, Brooklyn apartment between migrating to their breathable studio across the street. “The average one has to support the genius,” Ushio quips referring to his wife in a mostly joking tone, though Noriko is rarely amused by his mocking condescension. She knows that he knows he needs her, the kind of unspoken understanding that sustains a long-lasting relationship.
Ushio left Japan for New York in 1969 after little commercial success, intrigued by its diversity and culture and hoping for international acclaim. His avant-garde pop art and boxing paintings took more radical form in his paper maché sculptures of abstract animals and giant-sized urban motorcycles. At 41, he met Noriko, just 19 at the time, who was studying art in New York and became enamored with his bizarrely colorful work. She sacrificed her ambitions to become a wife and eventually a mother to son Alex, a long period of life that tested the couple’s relationship and provoked a silent competitive urge.
Noriko’s own artwork suffered in wake of supporting Ushio, who developed an alcoholic impulse many nights, leaving Alex in an unruly and unsuitable environment. Heinzerling is both careful and innovative in telling this story, animating Noriko’s illustrations of her life with Ushio, which she titles ‘Cutie and the Boxer’, a narrative told from her perspective. She is curiously blunt in her depiction of her husband whom she calls “Bullie,” often giving him a monster-like face without compassion. This, along with home archival footage, becomes the effective historical reference point for Heinzerling to contextualize the couple’s evolving present, one in which Noriko’s work is receiving equal acclaim with her husband’s.
Much of the joy in this documentary is witnessing this slow evolution and the quiet, good-natured jabs the artists throw back and forth at each other. The illustrations more than anything are Noriko’s assertion of independence and what begins as a documentary about Ushio’s plight to continue making and selling his artwork ends as a small triumph of Noriko’s rise to recognition. The inferiority complex her son felt, now an inherent struggling alcoholic and painter himself, is one she readily identified with herself, supporting Ushio financially and critically. At one point in the film, standing back from a large canvas Ushio has splattered with color, Noriko matter-of-factly tells him that she simply doesn’t like it. Ushio scoffs.
Heinzerling spent five years following this couple, maintaining an intimate presence in their lives, and his camera captures the mundane, daily routines. If they don’t feel that way, it’s because the artists sometimes feel like the exaggerated comical characters Noriko paints each day. In one instance, Ushio, before travelling to Japan for a buyer, rolls an ordinary suitcase into his studio and haphazardly packs his sculptures, unsuccessfully attempting to zip and cram them inside. After finding bigger luggage, he slowly bumps it down his high wooden stairwell and submerges into the subway. It’s these affectations that attach to the couple’s humorously naïve and insular Brooklyn world.
Their quaint living is not by choice, but by necessity. While the film analyzes Ushio and Noriko’s relationship, it also by nature follows their quest to sell and promote their work. “He’s not thinking, he’s doing!” Ushio’s agent tries to persuade a Guggenheim museum buyer interested in one of the boxing paintings. Part of the process is deferring to others to make pitches in clearer English, which often adds complex vocabulary to Ushio’s own more instinctual descriptions. Many of his neon bright sculptures have gone untouched for years, and so financial necessities hedge some of his more artistic impulses.
‘Cutie and the Boxer’ ultimately marks the slow projection of both Ushio and Noriko’s artwork that eventually is showcased together in a gallery. “Shinohara” becomes plural for the first time, names highlighting a joint display of Ushio’s energetic spectacle and Noriko’s personal cartoons, which she dutifully recreates and enlarges on four panels. Heinzerling allows us this intimate and inspiring experience knowing that the camera’s immediate presence in their lives couldn’t sway the two’s authenticity. Their work, displayed collectively, is joyfully shared and you feel like you’ve had a hand in the process, too.
Ushio wants the exhibit to be named “Roarrr.” Noriko instead adds, “Love is” before it. They disagree, but the title encapsulates their rocky, dedicated life to each other. In a candid home video early in Ushio’s career, he is visibly upset about his lack of success, defensively screaming, “Art is messy and dirty when it pours out of you!” He and Noriko would both admit, so is love.
– Jake Kring-Schreifels