Ushio Shinohara (Gyu-chan for his friends) is a a Japanese Neo-Dadaist artist who moved to New York in the 1960s. Now in his 80s and after a career of ups and downs he’s still struggling to pay the bills. As a true artist he never compromised his vision. He is considered one of the most famous starving artists. People enjoy his exhibitions, but they rarely actually buy his art. His works have been shown in the most renowned museums worldwide and he’s still struggling to pay the rent.
Cutie and the Boxer is not only about Ushio, but also his loyal wife Noriko. They’ve been married for forty years. She has always been by his side and helped him out, because she believed in his art and loves him dearly. The film shows how Ushio and Noriko met, how she sacrificed a big part of her life for him. She was an art student when they first met. Everything seemed great for a while, but then Ushio became an alcoholic. Both Noriko and Alex (their son) suffered a lot.
Recently however Noriko started to draw and paint again. She’s telling her story through quirky comic book style characters that are surrogates of her (Cutie) and her husband (Bullie). Her renewed artistic passion seemed to have caused some jealousy and rivalry with her husband, who feels like he needs to prove that he’s the better artist in the couple. At the end of the day however the two really seem to love each other and more than anything else their struggles have only strengthened their relationship.
Being fairly ignorant when it comes to art I had never heard of Ushio Shinohara. To be fair his career also peaked a couple decades ago. I love Zachary Heinzerling‘s portrayal of this starving artist, because it seems honest and not afraid to show the ugly side of his character. It certainly doesn’t idolize the man. It just shows him with all his flaws and weaknesses, which only make him more human and relatable. Ushio himself doesn’t seem to care to make himself look good. He’s just focussed on his art.
Noriko on the other hand still feels a bit unsatisfied. She wants more from life. All her life she’s lived in the shadow of her husband, but now she feels that it’s her time to shine as well. I must say that I was happy for her watching the film, because it felt like she finally got to do what she loved. It was fascinating to observe these two artists and see how they both inspired each other and how much their personal life was reflected in their art.
It’s interesting because at one point Ushio talks about how Steven Spielberg is “done” (after having seen Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and who can blame him that movie is quite awful). He’s old. Noriko reminds him that he’s old too and that an artist makes his best art when he’s young. Ushio said so himself. At the same time Noriko is not not exactly a schoolgirl herself, but she has this renaissance in her 60s and it’s like her artistic flower finally gets to blossom.
While Ushio keeps repeating himself and produces artworks that are aesthetically out of touch, Noriko’s work is fresh and creative. That is not to say that I didn’t like Ushio’s art. Some of his paintings and sculptures are undeniably amazing, but it’s almost as if he can’t reinvent himself anymore at this point and that’s okay, few artists can sustain the same level of quality throughout their career (unless their name is Woody Allen). It was great to see however how he still felt the need to express himself and create new art.
The documentary itself is an outstanding achievement. Not only because it tells and interesting story, but because it does so in a very thoughtful way. I love the way Heinzerling himself photographs this film. Rarely have I seen such a gorgeous looking documentary, outside of Werner Herzog’s work. Like Herzog, Heinzerling’s uses an original score to make the experience more cinematic. Not only that, he even uses animation and archive footage of young Ushio and Noriko.
I’ve always been a fan of films that use different film stocks or mediums to tell their story and Cutie and the Boxer does it in a remarkable way. My favorite part of the documentary however is the way it reflects on love, life and art. Once again, those three seem to be recurring themes in all of the best films I watch. It was endearing to see two people who are still together after forty years and genuinely seem to love each other (even if one of the two isn’t as good at expressing it).
All in all a great documentary I can only recommend. It’s only 80 minutes long. I really don’t know what else to say to convince you. It looks great, it feels great, it sounds great. I don’t know. What more do you need?
8 out of 10