By Richard Haridy
May 14, 2014
Cutie and the Boxer is a slice of cinematic magic that manages to turn a simple documentary portrait of a Japanese artist living in New York into a transcendently relatable examination into how long-term relationships function.
Ushio Shinohara is a Japanese artist who moved to NY in the 1960s. Shinohara exemplified a style of art called “action painting” where he soaked a pair of boxing gloves in paint and punched a canvas intuitively for several minutes, creating a subconsciously derived piece of work.
Filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling followed Ushio and his wife Noriko for five years and, in the spirit of true verite cinema, disappeared into the background as he chronicled the sharp relationship between the two. The final product created by Heinzerling feels more like Noriko’s story as the focus frequently falls on the face of this noble woman often sitting in the shadow of her famous husband. It would’ve been easy to frame Noriko as a subservient wife living under the unappreciative hand of her megalomaniacal husband, but this movie is too sophisticated for that. Instead, we are presented with a deeply conflicted portrait of a couple who fundamentally love and need each other despite their frequent superficial bickering.
The feature satisfyingly balances its observational insight into this amazing relationship with a minor but sufficient historical contextualisation of Ushio’s wider importance. The couple’s constant concerns over money and their seemingly poverty-line lifestyle really coalesce into a strikingly sad encapsulation of the “poor artist” stereotype. Ushio is a singular talent with a lifetime of impressive achievements, yet the cold reality is undeniable.
We’re also given a lovely series of interstitial animated sequences telling us the story of Noriko arriving in New York and falling in love with Ushio. These sequences are illustrated by Noriko herself in a wonderful watercolour style and have a bittersweet quality about them. This certainly isn’t a couple suffering from a rose-tinted nostalgic view on their past.
Cutie and the Boxer is an often quiet, almost fragile piece of cinema that presents us with a spiky and unglamorous relationship, still full of love. It’s a beautiful and humane documentary that deeply understands how humans function.
Cutie and the Boxer is now available on Quickflix.