In the rebellious 1960s, Ushio Shinohara was the reigning bad boy of the Japanese art world. He was a hard-drinking, mohawked enfant terrible whose combative technique consisted of punching angry explosions of paint onto canvas with boxing gloves fitted with foam rubber pads.
As he relished the aggressive energy of his fame and immigrated to a New York scene of graffiti and punk music, Ushio (nicknamed “the Boxer”) was enabled by his loyal wife Noriko, who hovered in his bristly shadow, looked after their young son Alex, served as her husband’s unpaid gofer, cleaned up after his boozy, late-night revels with fellow artists and secretly harbored unfulfilled artistic aspirations of her own.
Such are the makings of a deeply compelling and most unsentimental love story – one fueled by duel, cutting-edge creative drives, hefty doses of affection and resentment and palpable competitive energy – that make “Cutie and the Boxer” a truly touching portrait of two distinctive artists coexisting and painfully persisting.
The feature debut of New York artist-filmmaker Zachery Heinzerling, this deft documentary is a yin-yang portrait that begins with clips of a 1979 film showing Ushio at the peak of his fame and then gathers force as it slowly reveals the later blossoming of Noriko’s own artistic vision. As modest and diminutive as he is brash and bigger-than-life, Noriko seems to embody the opposite side of the artistic coin from her forceful husband.
As the two live out their genuine “starving artist” existence in Brooklyn’s funky Dumbo district of warehouses and bricked streets, Heinzerling patiently charts the story of their contentious 40-plus year marriage. After raising Alex (himself a torn artist with drinking issues), supporting Ushio’s career and harboring some strong resentments, Noriko has in recent years emerged as a forceful artist in her own right – creator of a series of cartoon-like drawings forming a fiercely personal graphic novel in which she is depicted as the aspiring Cutie and he as the aptly domineering egotist named Bullie.
Heinzerling pithily captures the prickly dynamic as the two artists work on their parallel projects – generally contoured by their painful personal conflicts, their constant financial strain and ultimately by their unflagging loyalty and affection for each other.
At 80, Ushio is still a robust figure, able to punch out new works of art with amazing vigor and creative force, proving he’s still a wild man and preening egomaniac at heart. And as Noriko’s star has risen and her gallery showings have gathered critical acclaim, her fame has begun to rival, if not surpass, his (much to his thinly veiled chagrin).
And yet, their bond seems to endure and grow even stronger as they age and rage into the future art-world together. “We are like two flowers in one pot,” Noriko says of their symbiotic and often competitive lives. And Ushio in one reflective moment concisely defines the level of sacrifice and uncertainty that he and his wife endure for their art when he says, “You throw yourself away to be an artist.”
- Dennis King
“Cutie and the Boxer”
3 ½ stars
Starring: Ushio Shinohara, Noriko Shinohara
(Nude art images)