CUTIE AND THE BOXER (2013), a film that splits open the breast, depicts a complex, decades-long marriage between two artists living in close quarters. Far from a tribute to lockstep marital harmony, the film is a document of overlapping primary colors—of two crystalline, earnest characters that collide again and again, yet remain only subtly changed.
Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko live in a catacomb of paint-splattered walls—part studio, part archive, part family home—somewhere in Brooklyn. For over forty years, through poverty, alcoholism, childrearing, and obscurity, the Shinoharas have patched together a life of sedulous artmaking. Now, Ushio is eighty (Noriko is a good two decades younger), and Zachary Heinzerling, a first-time filmmaker in his twenties already decorated with Sundance accolades, has made a visual diary of their insular world.
The project took half a decade and included a hundred shooting days, of which only the last year and a half made it to the screen, though the collage-style editorial approach makes it difficult to tell how much time has passed in the film. Save for Noriko’s gradual enfranchisement and a few interruptions in day-to-day life—Ushio’s absence while he is in Japan, the mounting of a couple of art shows—one feels as though we may be watching a single Groundhog Day–like afternoon, over and over.
The film opens with Ushio’s eightieth birthday, a rare marker of time. Noriko rouses the gruff, sleepy old man from bed to give him a cupcake, and after some rummaging they find a number three candle, which Ushio crudely squishes onto the dessert. As the film unfolds, we surmise, through archival footage and “present day” documentation, that Ushio’s impish, egomaniacal demeanor hasn’t changed much since he moved to New York from Japan in 1969. Ushio still looks much like his athletic, coarse-gestured self, and he still sports a (now silvery) mohawk. Noriko looks similarly eternal, her age betrayed only by her pearly braids.
Though Ushio is the more famous artist, Heinzerling chooses to center the film on Noriko, a solid choice, as her evolution into a stronger, more confident human being makes for a captivating narrative arc. Noriko’s gentle touch—the heart-wrenching way in which, veiled in tristesse, she washes their cat, prepares an intricate dinner, or regards a flower—is made all the more salient when juxtaposed with Ushio’s rough, noisy mien. Ushio is frequently shown engaged in the transfixing, belligerent process of his art, moving between “action paintings” made by punching canvases using boxing gloves dipped in acrylic, motorcycle sculptures, and sprawling compositions featuring characters seething with multicolored, polymorphous angst. Noriko skirts around him, making delicate paintings in Ushio’s interstitial space.
Noriko’s art during the period of the film takes the form of “Cutie and Bullie,” a hand-drawn comic from which the movie derives its title. Cutie and Bullie are avatars for Noriko and Ushio, and the series functions as a kind of catharsis where, on the safety of paper, Noriko can paint Cutie’s victories, riding a naked Bullie like a cowgirl. Heinzerling brings Cutie and Bullie to life in the film, animating them in little vignettes. Noriko’s characters are exquisitely drawn, and through these scenes we learn the artists’ tragic backstory—of Ushio’s alcoholism, of the unstable environment and ensuing poverty that enveloped their son Alex, and of Noriko’s shame around these facts.
When Ushio goes to Japan to try to sell a few of his miniature motorcycle sculptures—packed clumsily into suitcases without any padding—Noriko, visibly relaxed, shows her Cutie and Bullie ink drawings to a giggly friend, who approves. After Ushio returns, a gallerist comes for a studio visit; Noriko urges him to see Ushio’s work as well, and the pair are invited to do a joint show. Ushio chooses the title “ROAR!” which Noriko later, surreptitiously, changes to “Love Is a Roar!” In a tender scene, we watch Ushio process his wife’s role behind the title change, as Noriko argues that he’s only with her because he is poor, and he needs someone to figure out the subway maps. Ushio, still plainly conscious of the camera, pats her thigh and says, in a rare moment of vulnerability, “I need you.”
“We are like two flowers in one pot,” Noriko tell us. “Sometimes we don’t get enough nutrients for both of us. But when everything goes well, we become two beautiful flowers.” The film-time gestates in adulterated humus. But even here, the tenderness between Noriko and Ushio is powerful, as is their lightheartedness, in spite of—because of—their sadness. Are the flowers not Noriko and Ushio themselves, but their robust, lifelong devotion to their work? Their ardor is captured sincerely by Heinzerling, and displayed honestly, and the entire film suffuses a broken radiance. How rare to observe two twenty-first-century verité protagonists so devoid of ironic reflexivity, and how sweet.