Ushio and Noriko Shinohara are Japanese artists living in New York City. Zachary Heinzerling’s charming debut feature paints a candid picture of their tumultuous 40-year relationship, in which Noriko reluctantly plays assistant to her husband Ushio’s self-proclaimed genius.
In CUTIE AND THE BOXER we see Ushio, who made a name for himself in the 1960s with his famous action paintings, embarking on a new exhibition. However, the exhibition in question also finally gives Noriko the chance to step out of her husband’s shadow and display her own work.
While Ushio pummels huge canvases with boxing gloves soaked in paint, Noriko creates intimate images based on her life with her often controlling husband. She names the starring characters in these portraits Cutie and Bullie. Through sequences of animations of these images we are given insights into how the couple met, Noriko’s youthful ambitions, and the sacrifices she made in order to support her husband and his increasingly erratic behaviour.
Struggling to pay the rent, Ushio sets out on a trip to sell some of his works. In his absence Noriko declares her newfound freedom: as her artwork flourishes we watch her alter ego Cutie becoming more and more powerful, until eventually she dominates Bullie.
Unlike other recent documentary portrayals of artists, such as AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY and MARINA ABRAMBOVIĆ: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT, CUTIE AND THE BOXER has no political agenda and presents no reading of the artists’ work as such. Instead Heinzerling gives us a delicate and profound portrait of everyday life for two eccentric souls who, in spite of what they may want you to think, would be utterly lost without each other. Never is this more apparent than when, upon Ushio’s return from his trip, Noriko darts down the stairs to excitedly greet him and help him with his luggage.
Heinzerling quietly explores the precise balance of Ushio and Noriko’s marriage. The pained look on Ushio’s face when he is told by his wife the piece he is working on ‘is not good’ reveals just how much he relies on her as his biggest critic and champion.
Never overly sentimental, CUTIE AND THE BOXER lets Ushio and Noriko’s enduring love story unfurl before us. Any lingering doubt as to the couple’s mutual devotion is scuppered when Ushio asks Noriko ‘Cutie hates Bullie?’ and she touchingly replies ‘No! Cutie loves Bullie so much!’