Art Doc of the Week: Cutie and the Boxer

“We are like two flowers in one pot. Sometimes we don’t get enough nutrients for us both.” ~ Noriko “Cutie” Shinohara, speaking of her relationship with her husband, Ushio Shinohara

DVD extras for Cutie and the Boxer include footage of a Q&A with the director, Zachary Heinzerling, and the film’s subjects, Japanese visual artist Ushio “Gyu-Chan” Shinohara and his artist wife Noriko Shinohara, following the film’s 2013 screening at the Sundance Film Festival. At the end of questions, Ushio, speaking with help of a translator, expresses his frustration with the film. “He thought the film was going to be about his art,” says the translator. “He was very surprised to see that it turned, more or less, into a love story.” The long suffering Noriko takes the mic and, sans translator, says, “This is the first time a filmmaker made us equals. Before [all emphasis was on] only him. So I was quite satisfied.” She gives an unreadable smile as the audience applauds.

Cutie and the Boxer 

Check Out: Art Doc of the Week: ‘Eames: The Architect and the Painter’

A strong air of melancholy floats throughout Cutie and the Boxer, a film that ostensibly began as a look at the work and life of art world cult figure Ushio Shinohara but organically spirals into a layered conversation about the overlapping relationships between poverty and art, genius and selfishness, and the complicated ways love (in all its complexities) and gender contour it all. By the time Noriko quotes “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf’s classic treatise on female creativity and what it needs to flourish, the film has become a mesmerizing look at the complex human dynamics beneath the creation of art.

Heinzerling’s camera travels from the New York apartment Ushio and Noriko share (including their respective work spaces) to art galleries, and back again, with the domestic sphere being the film’s main setting. Cluttered and cramped, theirs is not the artist’s domicile of Hollywood movies. Bookshelves messily overstuffed with books, art and knickknacks; art on the walls, on the floor, rolled up in corners; cheap furniture covered with papers, clothes and who knows what else – all of it speaks to the life forged during the nearly four difficult decades the couple has been together.

Cutie and the Boxer 3

As we watch Ushio work, building his elaborate cardboard installations or painting in his singular style (he straps on huge boxing gloves that he then dips into tubs of paint, then punches the massive canvas, letting the abstract images take their own form), the film slowly pulls back to tell his story as an art star transplant from Japan in the ‘60s who landed in America a ready-made star, but one whose minor celebrity never translated into sales. By the time nineteen-year-old Noriko met the forty-one year old Ushio when she was visiting the States on vacation in 1972, he’d already settled into both alcoholism and the harsh realities of a thwarted career. Within six months of meeting Ushio, Noriko was pregnant, cut off by her family, and embarking on a life of hardship she couldn’t have foreseen. Her tale unfolds like something you’d read in a women’s study course about female geniuses being subjugated by male artist partners, with the women forced to channel their creativity into making house and home for the male who is oblivious to her suffering. The tale is complicated, though, because of the real love between the two.

Ushio’s back-story is filled in via copious clips from Rod McCall’s art documentary Shinohara: The Last Artist. Much of Noriko’s story is told via her autobiographical comic, “Cutie and Bullie.” One panel reads, “Hi, I’m Cutie! This is the story of me and my husband Bullie. I’m always naked because I am poor.” Filled with regret, bitterness, anger and sadness, the images and text she creates have been animated within the film to enthralling effect. By the time Noriko snares herself an art opening in the film, shrewdly piggy-backing on a show mounted for Ushio, the viewer is rooting hard for her – not only because of her undeniable talent but because Ushio, when speaking of his wife, is given to saying things like, “The average one has to support the genius.”

Cutie and the Boxer 4

The problem is, the support she gives is not fully appreciated – she’s an unpaid housewife, secretary, assistant, mom and wife, all in one, without acknowledgment or thanks. But Noriko’s resentment and sadness, relayed through barbs, are complicated by the fact that she still loves Ushio, and he loves and genuinely needs her. Subtle but powerful, often inscrutable emotions flicker across her face when the couple are in conversation, and those flickers speak volumes about the messiness and complications of shared history and life.

The film ends on a hard-won happy note that is still not even close to a fairy-tale ending. As Noriko tells a friend who asks why her comic surrogate is so angry, and why the story veers so dark, “It won’t be true if it has a happy ending. I hate Hollywood-style happy endings.”

The film can be rented here