In the early ’60s, Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara blazed with the confidence of success. Young and handsome, the art school dropout wore a Mohawk and helped found the avante garde group the Neo Dadaism Organizers, an “anti-art” art movement. Ushio’s work was aggressive—his most celebrated pieces were known as “boxing paintings” which he created by affixing sponges to boxing gloves and furiously sparring with a canvas. His later sculptures were equally virile: over-sized motorcycles and big breasted woman, all decorated in bright, colorful splashes of paint.
In 1969, Shinohara relocated to New York and stepped into the city’s illustrious art scene, rubbing elbows with Andy Warhol and the like. Shinoarah also met a talented young artist named Noriko; she was half his age and though the two couldn’t have been more different–she, the quiet and pliant introvert; he, the stubborn and magnetic center of attention–they tumbled head over heels for each other. The two were soon married and with child, living in the burgeoning artist enclave of SoHo. Life was good.
Fast forward 40 years: Noriko is in her early 60s, and Ushio, in his 80s. Wide recognition inexplicably still hangs out of reach of the Shinoharas. Burdened with the responsibilities of motherhood and overshadowed by the domineering Ushio, soon after marriage Noriko abandoned her art and instead spent decades raising their son and assisting her husband. “The average one has to support the genius,” as Ushio puts it. Meanwhile Ushio’s work has been shown at New York’s MoMA, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and elsewhere, but the couple still lives in poverty.
Zachary Heinzerling’s bittersweet and poignant documentary Cutie and the Boxer catches the Shinoharas at a unique crossroads: while Ushio strives to secure his legacy, Noriko has made a triumphant return to art, harnessing her frustration with Ushio and the haphazard course of their life together in a series of drawings titled “Cutie and Bullie.” For Noriko, the series is a means of retribution–”[Cutie] conquers [Bullie], she controls him,” she explains. As Noriko’s art garners attention and the balance of power tips in her favor, her grievances–but also her complicated and profound love for Ushio–comes to the surface. Ultimately, Cutie and the Boxer is not so much an artists’ biography as a heartbreaking investigation into what we sacrifice for love–not the polished kind endemic to the silver screen, but the gut-wrenchingly real, tenacious kind that grows like a weed despite ourselves. “I feel so free when you’re not around,” Noriko tells Ushio during one scene of the film. But she never asks him to leave either.
In anticipation of the film’s premiere, I had a conversation with Heinzerling and the Shinoharas at their studio. On more than one occasion, the interview devolved into Noriko and Ushio teasing each other like school children. I also had a chance to walk around and take some photos.
Zachary, How did you meet the Shinoharas? ZACHARY: A friend of mine from school, Patrick Burns, met them in 2007 and brought me over a year later to shoot for a day. We made an 8-minute film based on a day in the life with them, and people were really psyched about it and interested. As soon as you meet them, their effect spills over. You can watch them, and feel their personalities in everything they do, whether it’s their art or how they go about their daily routine. They live very beautiful lives. I’ve worked as a cinematographer for a while, and their space and the kind of purpose that they put into everything is kind of pretty, elegant, and easy to watch.
The film itself was really a process of getting to know them. Patrick and I would come over nights and weekends once a week and hang out. None of the footage from the first two or three years is even in the film—it’s really just the last year of filming. That’s the point where I became invisible and the more raw moments appeared—they allowed me into their space seamlessly and became less aware that I was here. At that point, the film that I wanted to make could be made. It took a long time and it was a very inefficient way to make a film, but maybe it was the only way to make this sort of film.
Did the film change in the process of shooting? ZACHARY: It started more about Ushio and we were interviewing all these dealers, historians, and friends of his. That seemed like the most obvious place to start because he’s a very aggressive personality and he wants to show his world to you. But at some point, the focus shifted to Noriko because there was just a lot more development going on with her character. Her character was more layered, sort of mysterious, and in a lot of ways more interesting. Her artwork is this pure window into how she views her past, which just gave so much fodder for drama. Her art has the same mood as the film—it has this comical, whimsical feel, but with an underbed of sadness and real issues.
Noriko and Ushio, what were your impressions of Zachary? NORIKO: Well, because he and Patrick are both very tall compared to us Asians, they looked like grownups. I misunderstood, and thought they were grownups. Gradually, because of the interviews, I realized that they were just babies. It took two years to realize that. At first I thought it would take only a few days for filming. But then they came every week, or twice a week. Then I thought it was going to take 10 or 20 years. When he finished 2 years later, it was a big surprise for us.
Ushio, what did you think of him? USHIO: Good guy!
But Zachary really stepped deeply into your lives—at one point, Ushio, he’s filming you in the shower. Were you comfortable with that? USHIO: Yeah, that’s OK. In Japan, my artist group usually did naked dances always.
Did you want this film to happen? NORIKO: No, Zachary wanted this film to happen. I never imagined he would come each weekend for five years. Gradually, we became involved. We couldn’t run away.USHIO: What I first wanted him to do was to show my art to the world. I didn’t have any exposure to galleries; I didn’t have many museum exhibitions, so I wanted him to make a film that would introduce me to the American art scene. That’s what I wanted him to do initially.
But instead you got a movie about your relationship with Noriko. USHIO: No kidding! At first my expectation was that everything would be centered on me. But as you can see in the result, that’s not the case. So, I feel a little bit frustrated. If I were to describe myself, I would say I have a dynamic attitude, I like colorful things, and I have a kamikaze attitude, but those things weren’t exactly featured in this film.
Zachary, were you aware that Ushio was disappointed in the film? ZACHARY: Yeah, when he first saw the movie, he turned tome and said, “So this is a love story?” And I said, Yeah, kind of. And he said, “Blech.” Everybody laughed. He said that I should cut the last 30 minutes off and that it was way too long. He had all these very, very particular comments which surprised me, because he’s a pretty easy going guy about most things. He had never really been invested in what the film had been about—he had never really questioned it. He would always be concerned if I wasn’t shooting him and only shooting Noriko. Noriko knew that the film was more concentrated on her story, but I think Ushio was caught completely by surprise. I would’ve assumed that he would’ve picked it up because my focus shifted, but he was pretty shocked. NORIKO: If someone is filming or not, Ushio is always center stage. So it was a surprise for him.
Noriko and Ushio, did you learn something new about each other? NORIKO: No, nothing. He never changes. I didn’t see anything new about his character in the film—nothing. USHIO: Forty years ago, when we started, we had a twenty year difference and I treated her kind of like my slave. She didn’t have much art skills and I felt like I was teaching her. But after watching the film, I realized that she had grown up and now she has become my equal. Back then, I thought a lot about having a divorce and there were a lot of problems. But after I saw the movie I realized that Noriko has always loved me. NORIKO: No. Many years ago he said, Please let me stay. He said, I will do whatever. It was me who wanted to kick him out.
So it was Noriko who wanted to break up with Ushio and not the other way around? NORIKO: Yes. And also, he stole all my ideas from what I was making when I was 19. He’s a good imitator.
Zach, was it hard being so deeply involved in this relationship while still treating Noriko and Ushio as characters in your film? ZACHARY: They trusted me to make the film that I wanted to make. They viewed it as my version of their story, and not their lives. They can talk objectively about the film too because in some ways it is this creation, this piece of art–they can talk about what they like and don’t like. When Ushio says he was disappointed, it makes sense. I’m not necessarily offended by that; this was the story I wanted to tell about them. Ushio has been supportive of the release of the film; it’s not like he’s taking it personally. I think it’s because he respects me as an artist. He can be disappointed, but not offended, and it’s the same with me. There’s a layer of trust because we’ve spent so much time together.
After so much time together, do you consider each other friends? ZACHARY: Noriko calls me her rice cooker. NORIKO: He’s like a household item. ZACHARY: Our relationship now is much more even. I don’t have a camera around and I’m not investigating them. Things in my life are interesting to them as opposed to when we were making the film, it was a little bit more one sided—I was the one who had license to interrogate. It’s more like a friendship now than it was during the making of the film. USHIO: I don’t have much to say. [Some lengthy prodding by Noriko in Japanese.] He filmed me in the shower room and it’s a pretty dingy shower room—there’s a hole in the ceiling. After that happened, there’s no choice but to consider him as a friend. ZACHARY: If I like your dingy shower, than I must be your friend. USHIO: I think so.
Cutie and the Boxer opens in select theaters across the country today.