Movie review: Artistic competitors keep flame alive in this film

THE MIAMI HERALDNovember 1, 2013 

Artists Ushio, left, and Noriko Shinohara struggle to keep their careers going and their relationship fresh in Zachary Heinzerling’s fascinating documentary “Cutie and the Boxer.”

  • CUTIE AND THE BOXER

    *** 1/2*

    Rated: R, sexually graphic artwork. Starring: Noriko Shinohara, Ushio Shinohara. Director: Zachary Heinzerling. Language: In Japanese and English with English subtitles. Running time: 82 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

“Cutie and the Boxer” is the story of an extraordinary marriage between two people bound together by their artistic impulse.

The movie opens on the morning of the 80th birthday of Ushio Shinohara, the Japanese artist best known for his impressionistic boxing paintings — huge canvases he punched with gloves dipped in brightly colored paint. For the occasion, his wife Noriko has bought him a pair of cushy slippers shaped like ducks. They sit down to have cake in their ramshackle Brooklyn apartment, which is overstuffed with artwork and sculptures and clutter. Ushio gobbles the sweet and gets frosting on his face. Noriko tells him to wipe it off but he ignores her. “I don’t listen to you,” he says. “That is how I stay young.”

With that exchange, director Zachary Heinzerling, who was granted unusual access into the couple’s lives, establishes the tone of their marriage — combative, competitive, embattled yet strangely affectionate. Ushio is unusually fit and sprightly for his age; Noriko, who is 21 years younger, often comes off as more mature. Although Ushio’s art (which also includes colorful sculptures of motorcycles) is well known, it never made him rich. In the early scenes, Noriko is worrying about money for rent and utilities. Ushio, as is his wont, waves away her concerns, knowing they’ll somehow find a way to pay the bills.

In flashbacks presented as animation based on Noriko’s comic-book style art depicting their marriage, “Cutie and the Boxer” shows how the couple met in New York when she was 19 and she visited his studio. He charmed her with wit and personality, and six months later she was pregnant with their son, Alex, whom Noriko essentially raised by herself.

“I did the best I could to raise my child,” Noriko says almost apologetically, after a scene in which the now-grown Alex drops in for a visit and is clearly drunk.

Although much of the documentary is free-form, “Cutie and the Boxer” eventually starts to focus on an upcoming exhibition at a New York gallery in which their works will be shown together for the first time.

This remarkable documentary argues that art can also be the glue that binds disparate souls.

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