Colourful characters, dramatic conflict and enduring love make for a winning formula in director Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, a lively double portrait of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two Brooklyn-based artists who, after 40 years of marriage, are still creating side by side, and tormenting each other.
Filmmaker Heinzerling spent almost five years, on and off, shooting footage of the Shinoharas, without understanding Japanese. (The film was subsequently subtitled). The cultural gap may, paradoxically, explain the film’s quality of domestic intimacy, squabbling and hurt feelings included. In interviews, Heinzerling says Noriko referred to him as “the rice cooker,” just another appliance in their home.
The film opens on Ushio’s 80th birthday as he wakes in their cluttered loft to a birthday present from his wife (animal slippers) along with news that they’re short on the rent again and there’s a leak in the roof. Both have style to burn. Even in old age, Ushio emanates virile vigour: He’s small, robust, cocky and frequently shirtless. In contrast, Norito, at 59, wears her hair in long white pigtails and dresses in faded pastel T-shirts and loose pants, like someone fixed in adolescence.
The couple’s background is sifted in gradually to the domestic scenes, through archival television footage, home movies and Noriko’s autobiographical cartoons. Ushio was already an established artist in Japan, embracing a spectrum of American styles including a Jackson Pollock-version of action painting, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns’s Pop Art, before he moved to New York in the late sixties. One of his specialties was “boxing” paintings, in which he donned boxing gloves dipped in paint and punched a large canvas leaving circular splats of colour. Scenes of Ushio producing these works are both indicative of his ultra-masculine approach to art and great fun to watch, as painting is turned into a fierce contact sport.
Ushio met Noriko in 1972, when the 19-year-old art student arrived in New York and soon started living with the then 41-year-old artist. For most of that time, Ushio has served Noriko as an artist’s assistant and minder during his alcoholic binges. Shortly after they met, she became pregnant with their son, Alex, also a painter, who has inherited his father’s drinking problem. For Ushio, Noriko’s thwarted career has never been a problem: “The average person should help the genius,” he asserts.
As they age, she is determined to make up for lost time. She chronicles her disappointments and resentment through an autobiographical cartoon series. The characters are Cutie, a pigtailed stand-in for Noriko, who is always naked (“because she is too poor to afford clothes”) and Bullie, a hard-drinking, egocentric. After Noriko shows her work to the owner of one of her husband’s galleries, the curator decides to create a double show at a Soho gallery: Noriko’s whimsical, playful works will be in a room next to Ushio’s brawny canvases and his imposing dinosaur-motorcycle sculpture.
Cutie and the Boxer is a film about how opposites attract and define each other. There’s a lot that’s adorable about Ushio and Noriko, with their youthful energy and creativity but their lives are harsh and they are often harsh with each other. Take a step back, and Cutie and the Boxer suggests a dollhouse version a Samuel Beckett drama, with two aging characters in the midst of their rubble pile, desperate to be noticed.