Being an artist seems to give you a lot of leeway in your public and private behavior. This is true in many cultures. Add that to the romance novels tortured bad boy archetype hero who needs the right girl and you have a the makings of a romantic train wreck in real life. “Cutie and the Boxer” is a documentary that presents the unhappily-ever-after of two Japanese artists living in America.
Ushio Shinohara is a trim, balding man of 81. His first name Ushio (篠原 有司男) sounds like the word for cow and male put together (牛男). For this reason, he has the nickname of Gyu (牛), a different pronunciation for the same character. First time director Zachary Heinzerling received a directing award at Sundance this year.
While the press notes call this documentary a “candid New York love story,” this look at the 40-year marriage is more of a cautionary tale. The young Ushio Shinohara was a radical artist sporting a mohawk and using his interest in boxing as his artistic novelty. He painted with rags attached to boxing gloves and also was involved in the making of “junk art.”
Japan is a small island in the 1950s Shinohara stood out. He was a student at the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, entering in 1952, but dropping out. His work was shown in and thought he could find success on a wider scale by moving from Tokyo to New York City in 1969 when he received a grant from John D. Rockefeller fund and later the William and Norma Copley Foundation.
Noriko was a 19-year-old art student from a wealthy family. In 1972, she came to New York to study at the Art Students League. While there, she met Ushio and went on a fateful three-day date that resulted in her missing classes and having her student status revoked. Without a student visa, she moved in with Ushio and was soon pregnant. By 1974, she gave birth to their only child, Alex.
Ushio’s paintings have been exhibited internationally. In the documentary, director cinematographer Zachary Heinzerling mixes footage from exhibitions of Ushio’s younger years. When you compare his boxing as a young man to his current work, you witness a disappointing uniformity in his jabs. Before there seemed to be an artistry of the fight, but not the elderly Ushio seems to be flailing at the canvas. Instead of progressing, he has regressed.
Noriko was born in Takaoka. She participated in group exhibitions in the 1980s and in 1988 she began writing a novel “Tameiki no New York” or “Sighs of New York. She began etching in 1995 and by 1999 she had her own show.
The documentary provides a sense of claustrophobia and there are some communication problems. Ushio initially thought the documentary was about him, but it is Noriko who is the focus. She is the Cutie, an avatar she claimed after someone called her “cutie” in the streets. Ushio is the boxer of the documentary’s title, but in her art work, at least the art work that this documentary focuses on, he is “Bullie.”
Looking at the footage from their past 40 years together along with current footage, you feel a sense of something like nostalgia instead of horror. The Ushio’s boozing and and arrogance are juxtaposed against Noriko’s suffering and struggle to be appreciated are part of the romantic vision of the artist. Now Ushio’s muse and helper rises under his shadow, but not really as her own independent person. Rather, she reflects upon life with him.
The work, crude graphic novel-like depictions of her troubled life with Ushio, would not in isolation excite any art collector. Rather, to me, it seems like an extension of America’s love of reality TV. We are witness to a marriage that survives but doesn’t necessarily thrive. Watching the addictive thirst of their only child Alex is creepy. We get to live the rough life vicariously through both Ushio and his suffering wife, Noriko.
The documentary lacks a counterpoint. What did his parents think? What did her parents think? Shouldn’t we probe why they prefer to live outside of Japan when Ushio doesn’t really partake in American culture due to language difficulties?
Female artists everywhere must be cringing. Consider the achievements of another Japanese woman, Yoko Ono, who defied her parents and became an artist in her own right, famous before she met and married John Lennon. Yoko Ono doesn’t fit well within American concepts of how a Japanese woman should act and how an artist should live their lives. Ushio as a boorish Japanese man and Yoko as a frustrated somewhat resentful Japanese wife does. “Cutie and the Boxer” is about the unhappily ever after when a young girl entrusts her life and future to a much older, hard drinking artist. You might enjoy watching this train wreck of a marriage but as an artist, this movie further alienates me from the establishment who decides what is good art and I’d question why we prefer our male artists as drunken louts.