It’s a wonder how “Cutie and the Boxer,” in less than an hour and a half, manages to say so much about love, life and art. Movies twice as long are often half as eloquent.
The feature directorial debut of documentarian Zachary Heinzerling is a portrait of artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, who met and married in 1970s New York after emigrating from Japan. “Cutie” is Noriko’s artistic alter ego, a subservient character involved with a domineering man called “Bullie” in the cartoonlike, semi-autobiographical narrative that is the focus of her current work. The film combines animated versions of her drawings with interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage of the couple’s home and studio life. Ushio is “the Boxer,” a nickname earned from a famous series of paintings in which he literally punches the canvas with paint-soaked sponges tied to boxing gloves.
He’s a bit of an egotist and a wild man. Now in his 80s, Ushio is a recovering alcoholic, but astonishingly fit, as evidenced by a scene of him creating one of his boxing paintings. He still has the aggressive energy of the young, mohawked man we see in news footage from the 1960s, when he was a rising star in his homeland.
Although we eavesdrop on Guggenheim Museum curator Alexandra Munroe trying to acquire one of his boxing pieces, Ushio and Noriko today live in what seems like near poverty, never knowing whether they’ll make the next rent payment.
Still, as shabby and leaky as their apartment seems, Ushio’s studio is huge — which can’t be cheap in New York — and one scene shows him returning from an art-selling trip to Japan with 35 crisp $100 bills. That’s his take for selling one of his pop-influenced cardboard sculptures, two or three of which we see him stuffing into an old suitcase as he prepares for the trip.
It’s a crazy, precarious existence. Compared with their economic worries, however, the Shinoharas’ marriage seems relatively even-keeled. Still, Noriko speaks of the constant struggle of being married to a man whose career and ego has long dominated hers. That’s thanks as much to his powerful personality as the fact that she put her own work on hold for many years while assisting her husband in his art-making and raising their son, Alex. (Alex, also a painter, is shown briefly in the film and seems to have a drinking problem of his own. “I did the best I could,” Noriko says with a tone of heartbreakingly unsentimental self-awareness.)
It is only in recent years that Noriko’s art has come into its own. Her picture series of Cutie and Bullie, which began as a thinly veiled (and rawly honest) look at her history with Ushio, has veered from fact into a kind of wish fulfillment. Just as the fictional Cutie is now more frequently able to stand up to Bullie, Noriko’s artistic stock is surpassing her husband’s, as evidenced by her 2010 exhibition with Ushio, “Love Is a Roar,” at the HPGRP Gallery in New York.
“You throw yourself away to be an artist,” Ushio says in what might be the film’s most quotable line. The same thing could be said of the compromises inherent in marriage. “We are like two flowers in one pot,” says Noriko, explaining that sometimes one plant does not get enough nutrients.
At the same time, she suggests, the act of sacrifice can be a beautiful thing. Art, like love, requires giving something up, maybe even destroying something. Sometimes, as the film hints, there is collateral damage.
R. At Landmark E Street Cinema. Contains nude art images. In Japanese and English with subtitles. 82 minutes.