Film Review: Cutie and the Boxer

Engrossing debut documentary about the longstanding relationship of two Brooklyn-based Japanese painters.

Zachary Heinzerling’s entertaining documentary Cutie and the Boxer is about the restive, symbiotic relationship of two Japanese painters, Noriko Shinohara and her husband, Ushio. The couple are emblematic of a past generation of artists who believed in art for art’s sake, in the intrinsic value of their work. Ushio, who emigrated here to be part of the legendary 1960s New York art scene, is a respected avant-garde artist, best known for his “junk art” sculptures and his “boxing” paintings. The latter are accomplished when Ushio, wearing boxing gloves dipped in paint, repeatedly punches the canvas. At 80, he is grappling with his legacy. Egotistical and rather coarse, he is the antipode to his classy 59-year-old wife, born in post-war-era Japan to affluent parents. When she was 19 years old, Noriko’s family sent her to New York to attend art school.

She met Ushio by chance, and in her artistic rendering of their early courtship, “Cutie and Bullie,” he eyes her biggest asset, the checks she received from home. Soon after Noriko became Ushio’s live-in assistant, she got pregnant, and her disapproving parents stopped sending money. Throughout the documentary, we see her as she cooks, cleans and assists her husband, 21 years her senior; Noriko is at Ushio’s side or taking pictures when he begins a new painting, and as he prepares for a studio visit. At the start of the documentary, she is compelled to explain that she is an artist in her own right, but as soon as she leaves Ushio’s studio, he remarks that rather than an artist, Noriko is “the average one to the genius.” Cutie and the Boxer is at first preoccupied with Ushio, and then slowly, almost imperceptibly, switches to Noriko, as though mimicking Heinzerling’s own progress over five years of filming.

The filmmaker’s debut, fly-on-the-wall-style documentary romanticizes what is, at least for Noriko, an oppressive relationship, although she insists that given the choice, she would not change her past. “We are like two flowers in one pot,” she says, in reply to an interviewer’s question about their marriage. “It’s difficult. Sometimes we don’t get enough nutrients for both of us, but when everything goes well, we become two beautiful flowers.” The only flowering in evidence is near the end of Cutie and the Boxer when Noriko gains recognition for her whimsical pen-and-ink depictions of her troubled life with Ushio. In “Cutie and Bullie,” “Bullie” refers to Ushio’s sobriquet in the Japanese community, Gyu-chan. “Gyu” represents the Japanese character for “bull”; the addition of “chan,” a suffix used for children, renders it an affectionate name, but Noriko’s use of “Bullie” also signals Ushio’s aggressive personality. “Cutie” is an appellation which she said she discovered when someone used it to flirt with her, presumably Ushio.

The Shinoharas granted Heinzerling surprising access to their shared existence and private lives, allowing him to expose the nuances of their 39-year marriage. From Heinzerling’s perspective, it has survived because of the couple’s enduring love for each other. Whatever one thinks about the nature of the relationship, the Shinoharas fit neatly into some evanescent Bohemian ideal. They live in a loft, and are struggling to pay their bills. Their disagreements, mostly based on their class differences, are entertaining; even the fact that the pair must hide wine from their alcoholic son appears, at first, to be only mildly disturbing because the young man is an artist in his own right. Heinzerling keeps his journalistic distance, and layers the narrative by moving between the present and the past, drawing on the Shinoharas’ photographs and home movies.

The filmmaker skillfully intercuts footage from a promotional short about Ushio, and from the Shinoharas’ super-8 films, crafting a colorful backstory, but also depicting the deleterious effects of Ushio’s alcoholism on his family. For many years, Noriko confesses, she was unable to make any art, burdened by housekeeping and child-rearing with no emotional support from her husband. The Shinoharas were impoverished, and still just scrape by; in the course of the film, Noriko tells Ushio they owe back rent, and he is compelled to sell a sculpture for far less than it is worth. The artists are also seen working in their separate studios, Noriko on her pen-and-ink drawings, and Ushio on a motorcycle constructed of cardboard. Other aspects of their creative lives provide spots of humor, such as the hilarious studio visit by a Guggenheim curator who bows a lot, and seems to know very little about Ushio or his art.

Heinzerling has a great eye, and his conventional, low-key approach to cinematography in Cutie and the Boxer—no shaky camera, very few tracking shots, and adequate lighting—puts all the emphasis on his subjects. A skillful edit by David Teague (Mondays at Racine), and an excellent sound mix that includes Asian-inspired music by composer Yasuaki Shimizu, paces a narrative that is well-structured, and seemingly driven entirely by the everyday lives of Noriko and Ushio. This refreshing, classic documentary approach is enhanced by the subtle animation of Noriko’s drawings (by Chris Monaco) so that the couple’s emotional history is manifold, the home movies capturing the spirit of their youthful attraction and the drawings the hindsight of age.

At one point in Cutie and the Boxer, Ushio asks Noriko if “Cutie hates Bullie.” “No,” Noriko replies. “Cutie loves Bullie so much!” While the drawings suggest pent-up anger, it is clear that the Shinoharas have settled into a union based on loyalty and mutual respect, Ushio’s bravado notwithstanding. In the course of preparing for the couple’s shared exhibition, Ushio reaches a creative dead end and invites Cutie into his studio. She studies his painting, and then dismisses it. After she leaves, the camera stays in close-up on Ushio’s face for several seconds, betraying the fact that the mentor and the student often switch places. In the end, Heinzerling seems to revel not in the relative merits of the couple’s art, but in the quirky patterns of the Shinoharas’ marriage. Regardless of what we think about the values that inform their lives, he presents his subjects as integrated and whole, a work of art unto themselves. If he idealizes their commitment, what he gets right in Cutie and the Boxer is a depiction of the perils and the delights of every longstanding relationship.