The documentary "Cutie and the Boxer" follows a duo who are lovers, artists, and fighters
“We are like two flowers in one pot,” Noriko Shinohara says of her husband, abstract painter Ushio Shinohara. “Sometimes, we don’t get enough nutrients for both of us. But when everything goes well, we become two beautiful flowers.” Noriko and Ushio’s volatile relationship is the subject of the documentary Cutie and the Boxer, directed by Zach Heinzerling. The film, which has traveled the festival circuit across the United States, makes its European debut this month at theaters in Great Britain.
Ushio began his career in postwar Tokyo, where he was part of the Neo-Dada movement and became known for applying ink to canvas using boxing gloves (as featured on our January cover this year). His action-based paintings serve as a metaphor for the daily battles during the couple’s 40 years together. For most of the marriage, Noriko has acted as Ushio’s assistant, and she has only recently begun to relate her experiences in her own artwork.
About five years ago, Heinzerling visited the Shinohara apartment and workshop in Brooklyn. Noriko was shy at first, but as soon as she brought Heinzerling into her smaller, personal studio she began to open up about her life with her husband. “I was overwhelmed by how authentic the experience felt, and how rare this studio space was,” the director says.
Noriko’s drawings center on a fictionalized protagonist named Cutie, who was animated for the film. Through Cutie, we learn the history of the Shinoharas’ relationship: how they met in SoHo in the 1960s; how Noriko was impressed by Ushio’s avant-garde lifestyle and art; how they fell in love, married, and raised their son, Alex.
Often, Heinzerling concentrates on the frustrations that occur in the marriage, through scenes depicting the couple discussing overdue rent, arguing over dinner, and quarreling about Alex. “It’s not a typical romance,” Noriko says in the film. “Maybe being opposite helped us to accomplish something in the end, but mainly it was my endurance.”
Ushio’s performances serve as another focal point for Cutie and the Boxer—clips of the 80-year-old artist pounding on canvas are paired with moments of Noriko quietly dipping her brush in watercolor paint. Before the final segment, in which Ushio and Noriko playfully come to blows with boxing gloves and bright pigments, we witness a calm moment in the couple’s life—Ushio sketching in his studio and Noriko washing brushes nearby, ritualistically cleansing the marriage of its painful past. “They’ve come to a place of compromise,” Heinzerling says. “They will continue to struggle but struggling is their equilibrium.”