In 2013 director/cinematographer Zachary Heinzerling released his debut feature, Cutie and the Boxer, the story of Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara and his embattled wife, Noriko. After screening in New York and select cities in August of that year, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Cutie and the Boxer has its national broadcast premiere on Friday, September 18, at 10:00 p.m. as a special presentation on PBS’s POV (Point of View). (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Below please enjoy our review, which was originally published on JapanCulture•NYC on August 8, 2013.
When Zachary Heinzerling first met Ushio Shinohara, the young filmmaker had no idea the old artist known as “Gyu-chan” was a vital cog in Japan’s post-World War II avant-garde art machine. Nor did he care. It wasn’t Ushio’s resume – founder of Neo-Dadaism Organizers in Japan, purveyor of “junk art,” innovative “boxing painter” – but his dynamic, spunky personality that sparked an interest and set Heinzerling on a five-year journey to create a film that would be a unique twist on the standard artist documentary. Heinzerling also had no idea that it would be Ushio’s long-suffering wife, Noriko, who would end up driving the narrative.
Heinzerling maintains this film isn’t about the art, but about the tumultuous 40-year marriage of the two artists. Heinzerling brings us up-close and personal – maybe a little too personal – with the lives of the Shinoharas, whom he describes as an “attractive, bizarre couple who fit together for some odd reason.”
The Shinoharas personify “starving artists,” as they live minimally, often in danger of being evicted or of having their utilities disconnected.
The bigger worry is the couple’s son, Alex, who is clearly uncomfortable – either on camera or in his parents’ presence – and makes only a few brief and practically silent appearances, mainly to establish his alcoholism.
Although these scenes are potentially embarrassing for the couple, Heinzerling says, “I wanted to portray [Alex] as a sacrifice that Ushio and Noriko made to be artists. Showing that pain and showing the other side of the coin as, ‘Yeah, you choose to live as artists,’ certain things get left by the wayside, and I think he was one of them.”
In the film Noriko acknowledges that throughout his childhood Alex was “surrounded by a bunch of drunks,” including his own father.
“They were a little bit in denial of his alcoholism,” says Heinzerling of the Shinoharas. “That certainly was a sensitive area, and that was an area that I thought was important to be in the film.”
As for the couple’s lack of finances, Heinzerling says, “The financial struggles they’re definitely not embarrassed by. They kind of have this eternal optimism about things. They think things are just going to work out. They wear their struggle sort of as a badge. They’re proud of it in a way.”
“I am not embarrassed at all,” the straightforward Noriko says of the personal issues presented in the film. “It’s my life. I don’t have to pretend I’m rich.”
Although Ushio says that riding the subway may be embarrassing for him after the release of Cutie and the Boxer “because all of my privacy will be revealed in this film,” he and Noriko are no strangers to the camera. Along with glimpses of the Shinoharas’ current life, Heinzerling sprinkles in old home videos made by friends and archival footage from Japanese production companies.
“Since around the time of the  Tokyo Olympics, the artists [of Neo-Dadaism Organizers] were the center of the [Japanese] media,” says Ushio. “We were always surrounded by cameramen and film people, and there was always this tension of being filmed. I used this tension of being watched in my artwork.”
“We artists are exhibitionists all the time,” says Noriko.
Yet it was Noriko who took time to warm up to Heinzerling and the idea of the project. It wasn’t until Noriko realized that Heinzerling wasn’t making strictly a documentary about Ushio’s art that she felt more comfortable having him in their cluttered Brooklyn apartment.
“In the beginning when he came to interview us all the time, I wasn’t so easy [to interview],” says Noriko, “But gradually – it took five years – he became part of the household. He became like my rice cooker. He was always there, and I could relax. Interviewing is different from a conversation; I want to have a conversation. But after he became like my rice cooker, it was easy.”
Noriko also noticed that Heinzerling shifted his focus slightly to her and her artwork. Noriko started finding her voice through cartoon-like sketches in a series she calls “Cutie and Bullie,” Cutie being Noriko’s persona, complete with pigtails, and Bullie representing her husband.
Through animated sequences of Noriko’s art, Heinzerling gives viewers the Shinoharas’ painful backstory. Noriko arrived in New York at age 19 to study art, but that dream was squashed after she met Ushio, 21 years her senior, and soon became pregnant with Alex. “Cutie and Bullie” is Noriko’s catharsis, as 40 years of Ushio’s alcohol abuse and their constant struggles to keep above the poverty line spill forth onto her canvas.
“Cutie as a comic has a fairytale quality like Lady and the Tramp and Beauty and the Beast,” says Heinzerling. “There’s a whimsical feel, a playful feel that has this underbelly of pain and resentment and real issues.”
The Shinoharas say they are happy with Cutie and the Boxer. Well, with maybe an exception or two.
“Sitting in the theater, to see myself after the film was made, it was kind of ‘Wow, I’m so miserable,’” says Noriko.
“Zach shot Noriko’s scenes very beautifully,” says Ushio. “On the other hand, when it comes to my scenes, it was pure reality. So, all of the damages were on me.”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think so,” retorts Noriko. “It’s because it’s reality. And you’re jealous.”
“Yes, always jealous,” says Ushio. “Jealousy is my source of energy.”
That back-and-forth from the Shinoharas’ four decades together provides a compelling source of energy for an artist documentary that isn’t really an artist documentary. There is an air of sadness throughout Cutie and the Boxer, and it serves as an examination of relationships, making us think of the sacrifices we all make for a person or a situation. It’s more intimate than one might imagine, with extreme close-ups, some uncomfortable dialogue, and Noriko’s honest storytelling. Viewers will also think about artists as everyday people, trying to make a living like the rest of us.
“The essential question in the film is, ‘Is it worth it?’” says Heinzerling.
Noriko chose “the pain of being in a relationship with an egotistical drunk” over her art, while Ushio is constantly poor and disappointed with how his art is received in New York.
“In some ways I think their lives are really great because they can paint every day and they live in this interesting space and they eat well,” says Heinzerling. “They’re both really happy most of the time.”
Ultimately, the Shinoharas give us hope. The realities of life often get in the way of the plans we make, but we’re never too old to follow our dreams.
Cutie and the Boxer streams online Saturday, September 19 through Sunday, October 18.