By Akshay Seth, Daily B-Side Editor
Published October 22, 2013
Ushio Shinohara prods his 81-year-old hands into a new pair of boxing gloves. He pauses, and with the air of someone who’s been doing this for close to five decades, examines the bulky sponges strapped on top of the gloves. After motioning for his wife Noriko to make a few adjustments, he plunges his hands into two large vats of paint. His eyelids droop behind a pair of safety goggles and loud, rhythmic smacks of sound fill the cramped New York studio.
Cutie and the Boxer
At The Michigan Theater
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Ushio punches an empty canvas, blobs of paint exploding through the whiteness in front of him. His art represents a tumultuous release of emotion — a tumultuousness that has come to embody the years he has spent honing his craft as a well-known yet struggling artist in the United States. Noriko watches quietly from the side, her eyes hidden behind a coat of sadness.
Documentary “Cutie and the Boxer,” newcomer Zachary Heinzerling’s stirring directorial debut, is her story.
It’s a story framed by her love for Ushio, but defined by the sacrifices she made to keep their marriage together. A 19-year-old art student from Japan, she met her then-41-year-old husband, already a recognized avant-garde sculptor, at an art showing in his studio. “I’d never seen art like it before,” she recalls in the film. Ushio took her under his wing and intrigued, she began spending more time with her new mentor. Six months after their first encounter, they had already married and soon, she was expecting.
Heinzerling’s film is powerful because it treats their marriage with honesty, filming the couple’s interaction without any speculative fluff to dilute the significance of what we’re watching. He lets the fights play out and doesn’t avert our eyes when the ugly consequences of Ushio’s former alcoholism take center stage. There’s a relaxed, tolerant approach to the storytelling that isn’t often seen in documentary filmmaking these days, making the melancholy nature of Noriko’s predicament all the more poignant.
As his unpaid assistant and chef for close to 40 years, she’s forced to sideline her own art career and look after their son, Alex, now himself an alcoholic, alone. The scenes in which he shows up to his parents’ cluttered apartment in the middle of the night, sloshing from side to side and begging for more alcohol, are the film’s most heart wrenching. Heinzerling gives them to us through Noriko’s eyes. She teeters between breaking down and looking away, but the unmistakable sense of denial in Ushio’s demeanor is what hits the hardest.
In archival footage, we see a drunken, sobbing Ushio exclaim “The New York Times called me amazing, but I have nothing. You throw your life away to be an artist. It’s like a monster that drags you along.” It’s the art that guides us through the story. As Noriko finally begins revisiting her roots as a painter, she creates a comic-book-like character called Cutie, an obvious extension of herself. Cutie, naked to represent financial and emotive deficiency, struggles to deal with a blatantly detached husband named Bully. She raises a child on her own and eventually, by giving life to a repressed anger, is able to tame Bully, “bending him to her will.”
An animated version of Cutie’s story is used sporadically throughout the narrative to describe the earlier stages of Noriko’s marriage. Toward the end of the film, she says she always had a choice to leave behind her husband and regrets not being able to give their son a better environment to grow up in. But she still loves Ushio. This film is a moving portrait of the trials of that love.
Noriko wears that coat of sadness as she watches her husband pummel away at an empty canvas. It’s what has made her the person she is today, the artist she always wanted to be.