The best thing about a good documentary is that it can unleash completely new worlds to unsuspecting viewers and enlighten them about real life events they otherwise might never have known about. This is precisely what happens in Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, which discusses the life of two Japanese artists who have been married for more than four decades: Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko. Ushio is the boxer mentioned in the title; his very unique painting style (categorized within the Neo-Dadsists) consists of having him wear boxing gloves and dipping them in paint or sumi ink, after which he splatters the paint on the canvas using boxing moves. Imagine Rocky turning Apollo into a literal Picasso.
While the notion of almost any kind of modern art inspires debates that can fuel entire university courses, Heinzerling forgoes most discussions of whether Shinohara’s art is worthy or not and instead concentrates on what he seems to think is the most important element of the story: the impossibly romantic, if not always happy love story between this artist and his endlessly supportive wife.
The director followed his subjects around for more than five years, time which allowed him to earn their confidence, trust and access to some of their deepest, most private moments. Watching how close the camera gets to them, you get the sense that they went from wondering “Why is this fool with a camera following us” to “Oh, there’s a camera there, we’d seem to have forgotten”.
Heinzerling shoots them in the most mundane of activities, while they eat or just sit around, and it’s during the least “special” of moments that he extracts the most complex ideas about the way in which these two perceive art and the world around them. Using custom illustrations made by Noriko, the director takes us back in time and helps us understand how they ended up together and what took them to the city that sometimes seems to have completely forgotten about them. We see how “the Boxer” caught Noriko’s eye to the point where she abandoned her promising career to marry him and help him follow and achieve his dreams.
As Ushio sank himself into his work, we see how Noriko allowed herself to become nothing other than the “supporting wife” who stands by her man at all costs. The catch here is that Ushio’s work never really took off in the way he intended (and in the way he seems to think it went) while Noriko developed illustrating and storytelling skills that she used as personal expression methods, but that might just as well have propelled them to international fame. It is this deep sense of “woulda shoulda coulda” that imprints this film with a nostalgia and melancholy perfectly embodied by the enigmatic Noriko.
When we seem them in their current age, Ushio now a man well into his 80s, we still see how his larger than life personality overpowered the sensitive woman who still admires him almost as a god-like figure. We understand from listening to her stories and being in awe of her marvelous work, that she could have easily become bitter and resentful of how her husband mistreated her for years, yet instead we see her hold on to her love for him as the most important thing in her life, her raison d’etre.
As much as Heinzerling captures them bickering and arguing over trivial matters, there’s a certain feeling of how his camera is inadequately capturing the richness of these people. Sure, it’s “fun” to see older people fight and hear them complain about their life together, but you get a sense that many things evaded the young filmmaker as he chose to try and dramatize events as much as he could. For all his best intentions, you sometimes feel as if the artists are putting on a show for the unsuspecting director, who thinks he’s about to get his money shot, while remaining completely unaware that the way his performers see art couldn’t be farther away from his perception. Indeed, Cutie and the Boxer could have been condescending or jaded from either side, yet it remains a fascinating experiment: a biographical documentary that’s all performance and a romance film that’s filled with endless pain.
Cutie and the Boxer is presented in a superb high definition transfer that highlights the strange palette of New York City as seen by Shinohara. Bonus features include several deleted scenes, that if anything prove that Heinzerling’s editor had a great sense of pacing and humor. A short documentary called Shinohara: The Last Artist explains how the boxer came up with his style and explores the reasons why he didn’t become as famous as he felt he could’ve been, while a study of his work features some of his greatest exhibits and most iconic works. The Blu-ray also includes a Q&A shot at the Sundance Film Festival where the film premiered in 2013.