Cutie and the Boxer: Zachary Heinzerling’s Documentary about Ushio and Noriko Shinohara | Oscars 2014

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Ushio Shinohara (second from left to right) and Noriko Shinohara (fourth) posing in front of Ushio's box-painted canvas.

Ushio Shinohara (second from left to right) and Noriko Shinohara (fourth) posing in front of Ushio’s box-painted canvas.

In Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, Japanese action-painting artist Ushio Shinohara is paint-boxing the canvas pretty hard, considering he is 80 years old. The documentary follows and lives of Ushio and his wife Noriko, also an artist. The two are constantly split between their art and family life, love and competition for each other, artistic independence and struggle for financial freedom, Japanese and heavy-accent English.

Living in their shabby flat in Dumbo, Brooklyn, the artists struggle to pay the rent and express their creativity. But Cutie and the Boxer never falls into the trap of the struggling-artist cliché, as the movie captures in an unsentimental way both the poignant hardship and the cheerful joy of art . The movie won the Sundance Directing Documentary award in 2013, and is nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar 2014.

Noriko Shinohara cutie and the boxer Zachary Heinzerling

Noriko Shinohara in Cutie and the Boxer. Zachary Heinzerling’s is often shooting in close-up and shallow focus.

The artwork of the Shinoharas, especially Ushio’s large canvases splashed with bright paint, create an upbeat and distinct visual atmosphere in Cutie and the Boxer. However, the brightness of the canvases contrasts with the artists’ modest-looking flat. Heinzerling, who was also the cinematographer for the movie, is observing Ushio and Noriko with his moderately shaky camera, often a little blurry and switching rack focus between the two artists.

The storyline  in Cutie and the Boxer is also often shifting—between Noriko’s feeling of being overshadowed by her husband’s art, Ushio’s alcoholic past, and their son’s alcoholic present. The movie never investigates any of these conflicts in the typical talking-head documentary style, but rather reflects them all in passing and through the everyday conversations of the family.

Noriko doesn’t hide her desire for artistic recognition and her unwillingness to accommodate the needs of her husband’s art. Her husband, in turn, proudly states the mediocre artist should serve the genius. But his hunger for recognition may be unfulfilled too, as he often makes remarks about how  someone will buy his art or what The New York Times said about him. Sobbing in a scene from archive footage, Noriko says, “We are the ones suffering the most from art.”

While Ushio mainly talks about himself and his art, Noriko is the more contemplative of the two. She remembers the important life decisions she had to make in order to be with Ushio, whom she calls her “teacher,” but says she has also felt inferior to. Noriko is making her own art series, which are largely based on story of her and her husband. Cutie is the name of Noriko’s art character.

Ushio’s art is often formally labeled as Neo-Dadaism, a short-lived revival of some of  Dada’s artistic elements during the 60s and 70s. The movement, one of the several New York-based artistic trends, also included Japanese Yoko Ono mainly for her film experiments. Ushio’s art is in style with the abstract-expressionism trends of Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Pollock is mentioned twice in Cutie and the Boxer—when an art dealer is favoring Ushio’s spontaneous creation over Pollock’s preconceived ideas (he is trying to convince a buyer to get one of Ushio’s paintings), and once by Ushio himself, who makes a parallel between his artistic couple Noriko, and Pollock’s Lee Krasner.

Heinzerling has almost completely removed his director’s presence from Cutie and the Boxer (the opposite of what Sarah Polley did in Stories We Tell). For the 5 years he spent on the movie (watch the interview in the video above), Heinzerling obviously made the Shinoharas very comfortable with his presence, as the couple seems open and natural in front of the camera.

cutie and the boxer documentary Zachary Heinzerling

Noriko Sninohara creating  her art with her husband Ushio Shinohara in the spotlight. Zachary Heinzerling expresses visually one of the themes in Cutie and the Boxer.

The last shot in Cutie and the Boxer, right before the ending credits during which the Shinoharas are paint-boxing each other, captures visually Noriko’s struggle for artistic recognition. In one of the few shots with deep focus (Heinzerling’s camera is generally zoomed-in and shallow in focus throughout the movie), Ushio is painting in the foreground, while Noriko is creating her art in the deep background.