Noriko and Ushio Shinohara in Cutie and the Boxer (Photo via The Guardian)
Love is a ROARRRR. In the documentary Cutie and the Boxer, this is the name of the first joint show by the film’s subjects, Japanese artist couple Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. It doubles as a fitting title for their four decades-long relationship, explored in Cutie through interviews, historical and home video footage, and animated versions of Noriko’s (the quieter and supposedly “average” wife to husband Ushio’s scrappy, boxing-painter “genius”) watercolor project, Cutie. Director Matthew Heinzerling says it was upon discovering Cutie, a collection of work inspired by the bitter times in Noriko and Ushio’s marriage, that he realized the film had the legs to be a feature, as originally it began as a short “day in the life” project.
The film is shot and edited wonderfully—Heinzerling’s approach captures the couple’s glut of struggles with art dealers, an alcoholic son and the pressure of creative production—without reducing their vitality and nuanced relationship. Ushio, who received notoriety upon arrival to the 1960s’ avant garde New York art scene, admirably sustains decades of visceral, sinewy creation, only to break down in tears when meditating on art-as-inner-demon. Noriko proclaims the value of “a room of her own” in producing her sensual works while recalling the endurance of their shared passions. At one point, we see the two subjects through each other’s eyes—in Noriko’s artwork depicting “Bullie” and in videos shot by Ushio, of Noriko taking in a summer breeze.
Noriko and Ushio are clearly opposites, but are they at odds or complementary to each other? What is lost or gained by choosing love and sacrifice versus independence and success? As an artist and feminist, I had an instinctual response during the film: wanting Noriko to receive her due, etc. However, by its end, I was buoyed by a more complex understanding of sharing, and yet competing over, one’s passions with a partner. Such questions take up much space in conversations regarding women and professional success; it is refreshing here not to see it all reduced to simplistic archetypes.
In many ways, Cutie’s trajectory bears striking similarity to the couple’s own artistic one. The film premiered at Sundance last year, earning critical praise and additional slots on the festival circuit. It then floundered, failing to obtain distribution in more than a handful of theaters. Good things can come late: after earning an Oscar nomination in December, the charismatic film quickly picked up attention, including the spirited support of many arts organizations.
This past week, Cutie screened at BRIC Arts in Brooklyn and at a NYWIFT event at the Tribeca Film Institute. Both screenings had lively Q&As. At the Tribeca session, Debra Zimmerman, Executive Director of Women Make Movies, moderated the event with the film’s producer and NYWIFT member Lydia Dean Pilcher. Zimmerman asked Pilcher what drew her to the project, pointing out that Pilcher is known for producing feature length narrative films, not documentaries. Pilcher pressed her hand to her chest as she recalled the first time she saw Heinzerling’s footage, “You just know inside when you want to be part of something.”
For the most part, the Shinoharas seem to take the acclaim in stride. During the BRIC Q&A, the conversation wandered over to their son, Alex. “He is doing very well,” Noriko said, “He is creating art.” She tells the audience about a pair of sneakers that he recently finished customizing just for her. “Maybe,” she adds, “I will wear them to the Oscars.”
— JOYCE CHOI LI