Love and sacrifice are unrelenting subjects in film and literature, a truism rendered fresh in the documentary Cutie and the Boxer. Director Zach Heinzerling lays bare the lives of Noriko and Ushio Shinohara, an artist-couple whose 40-year marriage amounts to a narrative of chaos and struggle, of love and the undeniable need for security. We go through the motions largely through the eyes of Noriko, who until recently had struggled to assert her artistic identity in the shadow of her husband.
Ushio Shinohara cemented his reputation in 1960s Japan. He gained notoriety as a Neo-Dadaist, whose boxing paintings creatively responded to Jackson Pollack’s action paintings of the previous decade. Wishing to launch a career in the States, Shinohara moved to New York in 1969 where he soon met the young and idealistic Noriko, an art student twenty-two years his junior. Their relationship has lasted since—and until recently so too has Noriko’s subservience to Ushio. She was seemingly destined for an insufferable life the moment she met Ushio. Soon after their union a son was born, and Noriko had to sacrifice her craft while Ushio plowed ahead as an artist; he was more capable of making the family money. He was also proud and selfish.
Ushio typifies the male artist-trope, one whose egoism and vigor propel a tireless engine. The trope's female equivalent applies loosely to Noriko, who is less a muse than an assistant—not to mention a free secretary and free chef, as she put it. However stifled, Noriko accepts the challenges of her marriage to an artist under whose shadow she was cast for decades, and to whom she felt inferior. She accepts it because she loves him tremendously.
The struggle became more tolerable in 2006 when Noriko began her comic series Cutie and Bullie. It marked her transformation as a self-recognizing artist, a process that Heinzelberg traces. The series is based on Noriko’s marriage yet presents a different, more uplifting outcome. Cutie is fawned over by her partner Bullie, who showers her with gifts and attention as reflections of his love for her. The outcome is different because, while Noriko may have blossomed as an individual, her marriage has changed little.
Cutie and the Boxer is not only about marriage but an artist’s struggle to stay afloat. We learn that to do so one must pump out new work, unearth old work from the bowels of your studio, and talk up curators and gallerists. It is important to have a capable art dealer, an area where Ushio and Noriko fall short. Maybe their clumsy dealer was simply camera shy, an instinct that the Shinoharas seem impervious to. This is what makes the film all the more delectable and captivating. It feels exactly the way a documentary should.