Remember that time last week when you turned to the woman or man you love and told them the truth about how you really felt? You thought you’d gotten to the root of the issue when you looked them in the eyes and said “you’ve been really annoying lately.” You know what? You don’t know shit about honesty. You’ve never even scratched the surface of what it’s like to deliver words so raw and heartfelt they’re still beating once they hit the air. You know who does know shit? Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. The married couple of 40 years are the subject of the fascinating new documentary, Cutie and the Boxer, by Zachary Heinzerling. The film traces the love story of Ushio, a famous Japanese ‘boxing’ painter, and his wife Noriko, a lesser known artist who has spent her career living in her husband’s shadow.
The film is an intimate look into the Shinohara’s life in New York – a life of near poverty, constant struggle both personally and professionally, and endless creativity. Ushio considers himself the true and sole artist of the relationship, treating Noriko’s artistic endeavors as more of a hobby (and patronizingly referring to her as his ‘assistant’.) At one point, Noriko says “I’m a free secretary, free assistant, free chef. If you are rich, you can kick me out, right? You are poor, that’s why you are with me.” Cue gut wrench.
As the film unravels, you watch helplessly as Ushio selfishly dismisses his wife’s creative talents and desires in his own pursuit of fame and recognition in the art world. Noriko, meanwhile, has the demeanor of a pensive, graceful, delicately beautiful butterfly who has spent years too long trapped in her cocoon but is too forgiving and noble to mention it – at least aloud. Instead, Noriko creates a series of cartoon-like drawings of two characters named Cutie and Bullie. The series is a mostly autobiographical, slightly fictitious depiction of Cutie as an underappreciated, overlooked artist pining for a better life, and Bullie, as a mean, domineering alcoholic husband. The film has so many layers I have still only managed to describe its skin – there is a side to Ushio that is softer and likeable too, it’s just harder to come by in the film, and I don’t really want to admit it because I’m on Team Noriko. He’s also pretty funny, when he’s not taking himself so seriously.
Filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling has created his own work of art here, and aside from the incredible story it tells, the film is so beautifully shot the visuals alone make it worth seeing. Cutie and the Boxer is a lot of things – it’ complicated and heavy and brilliant and depressing, inspiring and defeating, as heart wrenching as it is warming, but most importantly, it’s memorable. I saw it a week ago and I’ve barely stopped sighing. I just watched some movie on Netflix about a bunch of friends on holiday in France and that’s seriously the most I can remember of it, and that was less than an hour ago.