An eighty year old Japanese man, punching his art onto a canvas with paint covered boxing gloves, a continuous manic line of splotches in his wake. It’s a striking image and that one shot which begins this documentary is what introduces us to the artist Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko. Cutie and the Boxer is a documentary about a difficult marriage between two artists and how their art is an expression of their lives.
While the film’s opening focuses on Ushio’s iconic art style of boxing-painting, this is really a film about Noriko Shinohara. As the documentary unfolds, she tells us that she and Ushio are both artists but when she leaves Ushio tells the camera that she is just an assistant to his artistic genius. It’s clear that Noriko has been suppressed by Ushio for years, his selfish life style having halted her ambitions and dreams of creating art, having to put her life on hold to assist Ushio to achieve his greatness first. It’s frustrating to watch her sacrifice not be rewarded at all, Ushio is not grateful at times, takes her for granted, mocks her for believing she is an artist compared to him. The power of this documentary is it never shies away from those uncomfortable moments between the married couple, it is very intimate at times, you as the audience have to live in these moments with them.
So Ushio is “The Boxer” made clear from his artistic display at the beginning, the film then begins to tell you the story of “Cutie”. Noriko’s art is a series of small paintings about a character named Cutie and how she meets her lover Bullie. It’s very clear that these pieces represent the story of how Noriko and Ushio first met and how their relationship developed. The use of Cutie’s story within the documentary is very creative, the filmmakers have taken Noriko’s art and have brought it to life with animation. This mixture of art and animation tells this saddening story of how Noriko, a young woman with ambitions of being an artist in New York meets a “real” artist named Ushio. These segments really display the power of Norkio’s work, I became very sympathetic to her story, her interpretation of her life illustrated was hard to watch at times. You can tell that as she paints these stories she is painfully aware of what Bullie is now but Cutie can not realise it, she’s enamored by him. Finding his squalor and drinking a part of his artistic expression and not a warning of his lifestyle, we see Cutie give him money, clean up after him, her life is put on hold as she becomes pregnant and Bullie only cares about herself. For Noriko to be so aware of how her life became this way through her art is heartbreaking in a way, life doesn’t always go the way we want but for someone to be able to express the exact moments they knew it went wrong makes you wonder about your own choices.
Ushio isn’t portrayed as a villain in the documentary, while Bullie is seen as brash and unlikeable, the filmmakers show both sides to the boxer: he’s human and he’s struggling. Ushio Shinohara has been an artist for over fifty years and his success has been middling. He’s had gallery showings, news pieces, he does appear to be a name in certain art communities. However the documentary displays how difficult their living conditions are: money is tight, Ushio can’t sell his art and when he does it isn’t for the desired price. He leaves for a trip to Japan with four or five sculptures in a suitcase and comes back with $3,500 when Noriko says they need to sell for $10,000 each. His behaviour in the film can be off-putting, his dismissive attitude to Noriko is upsetting and he becomes dislikable as you learn more about their marriage and history. He’s a strange unique man, seeing him interact with people in the art community is humorous, not because he’s a joke but because he’s so different from other people. There’s New York art socialites and then there’s Ushio Shinohara, the paint-boxer. The intimate nature of the documentary really does display Ushio at his worst: selfish, egoistical, delusional at times but because of the access of the filmmakers, he is also presented as sympathetic.
The documentary’s coverage of the Shinohara’s story ranges from animation to archive footage. There are clips of old news broadcasts, home videos, interviews which show the evolution of Ushio and Noriko’s relationship but also how their lives changed. In one of the documentaries very powerful moments depicting present day Ushio struggling to create a new piece for an upcoming exhibit, the shot of his face is then cut to footage from the 1970’s when he breaks down about his life. Ushio knows he’s a struggling artist, he laments that he cares so much but has achieved very little. For it to cut back to him again trying again to master his art shows that despite all that has happened to him: he never gave up but the film reminds us that it came at the cost of Noriko.
Ushio and Noriko’s art is what makes Cutie and the Boxer a visually engaging documentary. Their workshops are filled with history, motorcycle sculptures and boxing paintings, their partnership and life is surrounded by the art. Their art is also very reflective of who they are showing their differences as individuals. Ushio is known for two types of art: bizzare motorcycle structures and his boxing painting, it shows him as a form of aggressor. He uses his art to expel frustration, when he boxes his eyes are closed and he lets himself free for the most honest expression of who he is. We all need an outlet and every shot that shows Ushio punching a canvas shows how passionate he is about his art. With Noriko’s art is about reflection and evolution, at first Noriko admits that Cutie and Bullie were artistic portrayals of herself and her husband. This art isn’t out frustration but a reflection of her life, her decisions and the fantasy of new choices. Over time, however Cutie matures away from Noriko and becomes her own being, Noriko states that Cutie is now independent in the art, she takes charge and stands up to Bullie.
This documentary ends with both Noriko and Ushio and their relationship having changed through their art. We see how Noriko rediscovers her passion and ability as an artist and through her new opportunities how Ushio is finally able to realise her potential. Noriko through her art comes to realisations about her marriage with Ushio and that all those events have led to being able to realise her dream of expressing through art with Cutie. It’s not a Hollywood ending but subtle changes can be seen, you’re not told through text where Ushio and Noriko are now at the end, if they fixed everything wrong with them and its happily ever after. They’re artists and the nature of their art is destructive.
Cutie and the Boxer is an intimate documentary that honestly portrays two people as what they are. Ushio and Noriko are very unique people, committed to their dreams despite sacrifice and hardships brought upon them. They are both inspirations and cautionary tales to young artists and their story probably very relatable among many couples. It also shows how the world is filled with incredible people no matter how well-known and how film as an art form can connect audiences from all over with their stories.
Think about it, there’s an eighty year old man who punches paint onto a canvas, how cool is that?