Chances are, even if you don’t know Ushio Shinohara’s work outright, you’ve seen it before – his claim to fame was a series of jarring papier-mâché motorcycles with giant, growling faces and occasionally wild splashes of colors. (He would make these creations out of discarded cardboard he would find in various New York City dumpsters.) The other major series Shinohara is known, which gave the documentary its somewhat awkward title, is a sequence of paintings created by dipping boxing gloves into paint and then slamming them into large canvases. It’s a kind of Jackson Pollock-meets-Rocky Balboa aesthetic that is quite arresting, simultaneously both brilliant and profoundly stupid.
The other way that Noriko’s story is illuminated is very literal – she is working on a series of biographical illustrations charting her relationship with Ushio. Heinzerling, picking up on the almost cartoonish look of these illustrations (which are just as beautiful and profound as anything Ushio has come up with), the filmmaker has decided to animate the illustrations. These illustration sequences make up a large portion of the movie – a heartbreaking biographical aside that makes you appreciate her work (to this day), even more. Almost everything is covered – how, at age 19, Noriko moved to New York City and was both charmed and scammed by the markedly older Ushio. She ended up paying for many things – and in return she was able to luxuriate in the company of an artist who had always banked on international acclaim and stardom, something that was flirted with but never quite realized. Her parents cut her off, she became pregnant with his child, and was stuck, forced to make excuses for his abuse and alcoholism (he’s been clean for years because his body can no longer process it), all the while contributing to his work without ever getting the recognition she so deserves.
As “Cutie and the Boxer” unfolds, a gallery show of Ushio’s work is being readied for a downtown New York exhibition. But as the curator walks through their apartment, Noriko shows him some of her work too and the decision is made that a section of the exhibit will be devoted to her “Cutie” series (Cutie is her alter ego in the illustrations). Ushio gets worked up and fumes, storming around and attempting to create some bold new art. Noriko works placidly, digging deep into her own tortured personal history to come up with something gorgeous and unique. When the show is finally exhibited, her room, without a single snarling motorcycle or bruised-up canvas, is clearly the one people are drawn to – the simple personal story, gingerly drawn, of a woman who fell in love with a deeply troubled artist, and never became untangled.
As a documentary and a love story, “Cutie and the Boxer” is nothing short of breathtaking. There’s a nimbleness to the storytelling that always keeps you involved, including a small stretch comprised of archival footage of Ushio’s early days when he still was something of a sensation, and an emotional core that most documentaries sidestep entirely. It’s not mushy but it is resonantly heartfelt. At the end of the day, the couple’s relationship, clearly, is their greatest collaborative effort. [A]