The Artist and Her Husband

Published August 14, 2013

ABOVE: USHIO AND NORIKO SHINOHARA IN CUTIE AND THE BOXER

Yes, Cutie and the Boxer is a documentary about an unlikely couple—the mesmerizingly energetic artist Ushio Shinohara, and his placid, reflective wife, Noriko, who is also an artist. However, unlike most stories of oddly matched pairs, Cutie and the Boxer does not celebrate an effortless, transcendent romance that defies logic. Instead, the film is the story of a relationship that has often been a struggle—fraught with poverty, substance abuse, and raw emotion. It is the documentation of an integral moment in the trajectory of the Shinoharas’ relationship, a moment when Noriko has begun to emerge from the shadow of her husband, creating her body of artwork that draws from her relationship with Ushio.

Though both of the Shinoharas are practicing artists, Ushio’s work had always been at the forefront of the couple’s lives; the defining element of their 40-year marriage. Once the poster child of Japanese contemporary art, 80-year-old Ushio’s hyperactivity is only matched only by his earnest single mindedness about his work. Noriko is a painter, though her studio practice has often been secondary to Ushio’s—she has spent more time raising the couple’s child and acting as Ushio’s manager, while Ushio drank heavily and worked in the studio. Ushio is no longer an alcoholic, but the wounds of the pair’s past are not completely healed. Throughout the film, Noriko works on a comic chronicling the lives of “Bully” and “Cutie,” beautifully illustrated stand-ins for herself and her husband. “She used her pain as something to say,” says filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling.

Heinzerling has formatted Cutie and the Boxer as an intricately layered and nuanced document; the film not only chronicles the Shonihara marriage, but is also a meditation on their home, a chaotic artist’s warehouse and studio in DUMBO, Brooklyn. Interspersed with the vérité-style footage of Ushio and Noriko in their home and studio, eating dinner, painting and relaxing in lawn chairs on their roof are animated sequences of Noriko’s comics, beautifully rendered ink illustrations that are simultaneously wickedly funny and wrenching. Heinzerling has also incorporated archival footage: newscasts highlighting Ushio’s artistic career in ’70s New York, and home videos made by friends of the couple.

In their own home, the level of candidness that Heinzerling has managed to achieve with Ushio and Noriko is profound. “Noriko says the camera became like a rice cooker—part of her every day,” the filmmaker explains. Ushio walks around in his underwear, and Noriko chastises him. The couple bickers and has heartfelt realizations. Much like the couple’s relationship, nothing feels contrived.

CUTIE AND THE BOXER OPENS IN LIMITED RELEASE THIS FRIDAY, AUGUST 16.