Zachary Heinzerling’s charmingly intimate documentary dives inside the world of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, a Japanese artist couple living in New York. On the surface, a colourful and light-hearted journey through the life and times of eccentric Ushio, his highs and lows as an artist, but behind the splashes of paint and easy smiles is a story of love and sacrifice played out over four decades.
Ushio Shinohara punches his way onto the screen as we witness, in a wonderful opening sequence, his unique take on art and what first brought fame knocking at his door in the ‘60s/ ‘70s. This sets the tone for a beautifully shot and perfectly paced piece of documentary filmmaking.
Heinzerling combines animation, old ‘home movie’ footage and intimately shot observations to paint his picture of Ushio and Noriko’s life together. The premise is Ushio’s final attempt, at the ripe old age of 80, to cement his legacy as a relevant artist in New York’s contemporary art scene. However, what is discovered as this relationship unfolds is, as the director himself says, it’s “Noriko’s story that drives the narrative arc of the film”.
The seemingly timid wife of an extrovert showman, Noriko rapidly reveals a sharper edge as she openly belittles and mocks her husband apparently for the benefit of the camera. This comes across as endearing, strangely romantic and has you smiling and laughing along as they exchange the kind of insults that can only live in a 40-year marriage. As our time with the Shinoharas continues the strange looks and pauses, which at first are comical, become far more telling as more and more is learnt about their past. Through Noriko’s hand-drawn artwork, her eponymous ‘Cutie’ series, an appreciation begins to develop of the gravity belying her comments towards her husband.
This is a good journey and shows that Heinzerling clearly has talent as a storyteller but not only are the lines between art and domesticity blurred with the relationship between Ushio and Noriko but also between that of viewer and voyeur. It’s not that the film is exploitative, far from it, but there are moments, particularly involving the son Alex, that verge on uncomfortable as you no longer know whether it’s OK to be watching what you’re being shown.
‘Cutie and the Boxer’ is enjoyable and packs a punch in more ways than one with beautiful utilisation of modern digital cinematography to immerse the audience in the chaotic world of these artists. But there remains something unsettling about the truths that it only flirts with uncovering. One scene, again shown through old home movie footage, is particularly moving as Ushio finally breaks down and cries inconsolably, “It’s we that suffer the most for art “.
The film’s closing sequence matches in brilliance that of the opening, there’s no better visual display of the relationship between Ushio and Noriko Shinohara than the two of them smacking nine bells out of one another in beautiful multi-coloured slow motion!