Cutie and the Boxer
Opens Fri., Aug. 30 at Seven Gables. Not rated. 82 minutes.
Granted remarkable access to the lives of struggling Japanese artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara in this poignant documentary, debut director Zachary Heinzerling follows the couple through the most mundane details of their marriage and art. The very spry Ushio, now 81, spends half the movie shirtless as he brushes his teeth, cooks, pounds paint onto canvas with boxing gloves, and kvetches in their cluttered Brooklyn loft about his lack of commercial success. He emigrated in 1969 and still seems stuck in the rut of Pop Art: big, splotchy boxing paintings and motorcycle sculptures made of cardboard and other found materials. A successful sales trip to Japan yields all of three grand. When a politely skeptical Guggenheim curator asks about purchasing one particular work, his wife Noriko explains that Ushio gave it away to a friend while drunk.
But now, after decades of alcoholism, Ushio is sober—unlike the couple’s adult son, briefly glimpsed—and Noriko is determined to escape his artistic shadow. Two decades younger, she craves a room of her own (here she quotes Virginia Woolf). With Ushio away in Japan, she goes to dance class and works in her notebooks. “I feel so free when you’re not around,” she later tells him. Yet her complaints are delivered with bittersweet acceptance. After four decades of marriage, she and Ushio are two flowers in one pot, she says, for better and worse. Ushio meanwhile scoffs, “She is just an assistant. The average one has to support the genius.” How much of that sexism is specifically Japanese or the posturing of a macho, mediocre artist is hard to guess. But he clearly can’t live without her.
Heinzerling plainly loves both his subjects, but it’s impossible for him and the viewer not to love long-suffering Noriko more. Her son is a disappointment, her husband is well past his days of partying with Warhol and Rauschenberg, and she channels her discontent into a series of biographical drawings full of quarrelsome cherubic figures, called Cutie and Bullie, that Heinzerling spins into lovely animation sequences. He structures the doc to end with the Shinoharas’ joint show in 2010, presented as Noriko’s belated coming-out as an artist. Her 60-foot mural is impressive, but her real genius is a stoic dignity. I think many women—even if married only a few years—will see themselves in Noriko.