A glaring issue with documentary filmmaking is how one can accurately portray the life of the person they document when there is always a camera in their face. With filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling, and his breakout documentary “Cutie and the Boxer”, we enter a paint splattered world that is very much alive, and feels honest and real.
Despite his status as a semi-renowned painter—in the form of a late Andy Warhol of sorts—Ushio Shinohara may at first glance appear to be the focal point of Heinzerling’s tale, but attached to Ushio’s hip is his wife Noriko Shinohara. Ushio is legendary for strapping rags, doused in various paints, to boxing gloves and pounding a canvas against the wall. An early shot of “Cutie” shows us the process, and it’s mesmerizing, almost similar in an abstract way to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Ushio is a style unto his own however, as he finds a way to mesh the styles and sub-cultures of his home country of Japan with some themes from American pop art. Like Ushio, his work is boisterous and unashamed of what it is. Ushio used to be a drunk party boy, but even in his older age, the violence he uses to strike the wide canvas with his boxing gloves tells a story of the man he used to be, and the fiery spirit that exists in him still.
His wife, Noriko, was also an artist. As we learn quickly in “Cutie”, Noriko tells us of her life and how she came to know Ushio through voiceover and her bizarre ink drawings. These scribbles, as she tells us, are a bird’s eye view of her naivety as a young girl in her move to New York. In her story, Cutie, meets a famous artist, named the Boxer. The Boxer admires her, but after a night of drinking, uses her money to pay for his rent and bills. The Boxer is wild and rampant, sleeping with everyone, and drinking everything in sight, yet Cutie becomes pregnant with his child, and supports the two of them, while the Boxer continues his lifestyle. Oh, there is much more to say about these two, but it’s best left experienced for yourself.
The relationship of these two artists is stifled, one by the other. It’s a little messed up, as I’m sure you can guess, but the two haven’t left each other. Through most of “Cutie and the Boxer”, we actually aren’t sure how Noriko feels about Ushio, but it’s a cute and quaint little marriage they share. Ushio picks on Noriko, but reminds her of how good her food is. Noriko surely thinks Ushio is a selfish pig, and reminds him of it. There is one scene in particular, where the two are talking about Noriko’s drawings for her story, that Noriko says, “No, Cutie loves the Boxer.” This is perhaps the reassurance we have been seeking since the start of “Cutie”, and it’s heartwarming. Noriko is a humble, loving, selfless woman, who wants so badly to help and support Ushio. Some of the most memorable moments are those that the two share in the quiet. Notable in this area is another scene where both sit underneath a Japanese Cherry Blossom tree, flower petals dropping down onto Ushio’s face.
“Cutie and the Boxer” is a wonderful story of love, companionship, and perseverance. Like these two artist’s work, the film is unafraid to be transparent. The difficult life of an artist becomes very clear to us as a result of their lives, and hopefully, we are very glad to have been exposed to it.
P.S. I must add this. The closing credits are brilliant and capture perfectly the essence of Ushio and Noriko’s bond with one another. It’s unreal.