Cutie and the Boxer (2013) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: R for nude art images
Running Time: 82 min.

Cast: Ushio Shinohara, Noriko Shinohara, Alex Shinohara, Ethan Cohen
Director: Zachary Heinzerling

Review published December 7, 2013

Cutie and the Boxer is a documentary that follows an 80-year-old Japanese artist who has been living and working in New York city for four decades, Ushio Shinohara, and his wife, another struggling artist living in his shadow, Noriko, over 20 years his junior.  In addition to his cardboard and metal sculptures, Ushio is perhaps most well known for his series of abstract "boxing" paintings, which were made by him dipping boxing gloves with large sponge-pads soaked with paint on them and punching a wall canvas until the mural is covers with large, sometimes colorful blotches.  Though their relationship had started happy and with healthy promise, Ushio's self-centered view on things, as well as his alcoholism, has resulted in Noriko's ennui in the marriage.  As Noriko wonders if she could have amounted to more if she hadn't latched on and sacrificed her artistic pursuits in order to work on her marriage and raise a son, she finds herself wanting some independence, culminating in a manga-style series of sketches she calls, "Cutie and the Bullie", detailing her feelings of longing and regret in her marriage over the years.

This documentary is captured by filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling, who is given a wholly intimate look into some very personal aspects of this couple's married life, including that of their own son, Alex, who seems to be dealing with his own unflattering bout of alcoholism.  It feels very voyeuristic, though not completely foreign in this day and age of reality television, to see a couple play out their problems in front of prying cameras they know will be seen by many strangers.  Though both of the marriage partners are artists, their personalities are polar opposites, with Ushio more a brash and extroverted bad-boy, and Noriko more withdrawn, thoughtful, and caring.  She takes care of all of Ushio's needs, not because she wants to, but because he'd be useless, as exemplified by a rare attempt for Ushio to try to cook the family dinner (burgers with celery in them that are nearly inedible in their dryness). 

Scenes of today are interspersed with their early days, some taken from a early news-piece documentary on Ushio, and some from their own home movies, most of which showcase their dependence on alcohol in their entertainment of other artist types who would regularly visit them.  Also injected into the film are scenes taken from Noriko's art, lightly animated, to punctuate moments of their courtship and early romance with the state of the marriage as it exists today, in which Noriko feels stifled and partly victimized by her bullying, alcoholic husband.  Though one can't help but feel a bit sorry for Ushio for not only have a wife paint such an unflattering portrayal of him in her work, but to have it not only displayed at an art gallery showcasing his own work, as well as a documentary that will likely be the introduction to him among many, must be particularly hard.  But, it also shows his love for Noriko that he is able for her to express herself, even if it is to his own deflation of his inflated opinion of himself as the ruler of his own universe.

Though Ushio definitely has notoriety and fame in the art world, it hasn't translated into being able to earn much of a living, as the couple struggles to scrape out paying for rent and food. So, they offer up notable moments of their art at far less what might be the value of such items.  Interesting that their personalities also inform their art work.  Ushio, the extrovert, puts his art in the outward extension of his interests, with motorcycles, fighting animals, and titles that crackle comic book quotations like Pow!, Bang!, Vroom! and Roar!  Meanwhile, Noriko's art goes within to her inner feelings that are affected by Ushio's actions, finding a voice she can't seem to get to come out naturally.  Noriko asserts that this art is her inner "Roarrr!" in which she finally figuratively clobbers Bullie with years of her own pent-up frustration at being seen as the assistant rather than the partner in their work and home life.

If there is one thing that appears to be missing in Cutie and the Boxer that would have been interesting to explore with more depth, it's Ushio's take on his wife's work.  Does it bring him pain?  Does it make him want to be a more supportive partner?  Does he reject it as an honest representation of their marriage?  How would he feel if his wife were to supersede him in popularity and become the family's top bread winner?  Lots of questions emerge, but the film remains somewhat aloof to the complexity of the couple's changing dynamic resulting from Noriko's push for breathing space in their marriage and in her ability to create art.  You come to appreciate what it takes to be committed to the art, as well as the sacrifices of some, especially of women, to support their pursuits in something that may or may not ever pan out to the level of greatness these geniuses feel they possess.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo