14:49 - 23rd April 2014, by David West

Cutie And The Boxer

Ushio Shinohara is a struggling artist from Japan living in New York. But he's no young idealist - he has just turned 80, and has devoted his entire adult life to the pursuit of his art, winding up with little recognition or commercial success in the process. He met his wife Noriko when she was 19 and he was 41. He was the older established artist; she was the young student who was flattered by his attentions. Now she is building a reputation of her own in the art world with a series of works documenting the turbulent life of a couple called Cutie and Bullie, obviously modelled on her chaotic marriage to Ushio.

Zachary Heinzerling's documentary is an intimate, at times even uncomfortable, look at the relationship between a thoroughly unconventional couple. Ushio creates 'boxing paintings', where he has sponges taped to a pair of fighting gloves that he dips in paint and uses to hammer at the canvas. It looks like quite a workout for an old man, but he finds few people want to buy them. Despite the muted reception to his work, he remains doggedly determined and seems frustrated that Noriko is no longer content to live in his shadow as his assistant. "The average one has to support the genius," he says, but Noriko is not the lovestruck young ingénue she used to be, and at times seems terribly bitter, putting Ushio down on camera time and again. "I feel so free when you're not around," she tells him, bluntly.

Heinzerling's sympathies often seem to lie with Noriko and her drawings of Cutie and Bullie are brought to life on screen in animated sequences. However, she is also the much more emotionally guarded of the pair. Ushio wears his heart on his sleeve; every minor victory brings forth a huge smile, every setback or putdown adds a new line to his worried brow. Despite living in New York since the late 1960s, there is a strong sense that they remain outsiders in many respects. They converse almost entirely in Japanese, and, based on the people who appear in the documentary, have mainly Japanese friends. One unwittingly hilarious woman from the Guggenheim Museum insists on constantly bowing to Ushio with her palms pressed together, unaware that gesture is a Thai greeting called the Wai and not how the Japanese bow.
While the Shinohara's New York apartment is small and cramped, their world is bursting with colour through their art. Heinzerling mixes in old home movies, archive material from a 1970s film about Japanese artists living in New York, and the animated sequences to provide a stimulating and varied visual palette. There seems to be no shortage of struggle and sadness in the lives of Ushio and Noriko, but there is still a sense of joy and fulfilment in their unwavering devotion to art as an end in itself. As such, Heinzerling has created a remarkable documentary about two exceptional people.

Much more than just a film about two struggling artists, Cutie And The Boxer explores love, family, the price of chasing your dreams set against the realities of compromise and marriage.
SCORE: 4/5
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