“We are like two flowers in a pot. It’s difficult. Sometimes we don’t get enough nutrients for both of us. But when everything goes well, we become two beautiful flowers.”
Noriko Shinohara is a diminutive Japanese woman with long white braids, a sweet round face, and a sneaky smile. A former artist, her career took a backseat for over four decades as she raised her son and assisted her more renowned, but perpetually difficult artist-husband, Ushio Shinohara. A wonderful new documentary – Cutie and the Boxer – examines the often one-sided relationship between husband and wife and their respective art.
“Art is a demon. A demon that drags you along. It’s not something you can stop, even if you should. You throw yourself away to be an artist,” says Ushio (nicknamed Gyu-chan). Though it is never explicitly said, the film was likely supposed to focus mainly on him and his later career, but preumably changed to them both as the story revealed itself to the filmmakers.
A Japanese immigrant who came to the U.S. in the late 1960s, Gyu-chan is a multi-hyphen artist – a modern, Neo-Dada, pop-art, performance artist. His signature works are motorcycle sculptures (to him, the essence of America) made of re-purposed materials and huge, neon-dotted canvases painted in his trademark “boxing” style.
His “boxing” paintings are done by wearing boxing gloves wrapped in foam and dipped in paint. He ferociously punches the canvas from right to left, violently throwing himself into his work (literally and figuratively) continuously for several minutes. It is fascinating to watch, especially the aftermath – the finished product and the out-of-breath old man beside it.
Noriko watches from the side. On top of taking care of him and their son, she snaps pictures of him as he works, helps setup the studio, deals with the museum curators and gallery owners, and much more. She is there to support Gyu-chan, at least according to him, and he looks at her like an assistant. He says, “The average one has to support the genius.”
But despite his relative fame, they are poor and struggle for money. In the film, Gyu-chan is described as “the most famous of New York’s poor, starving artists.” They live in a cramped and crumbling apartment – a live/work space for them both. They bicker about making dinner, paying rent, and the merits of different films by Steven Spielberg. Despite its paternalistic nature, their relationship is mostly loving and sweet – they obviously care greatly for one another after four decades of marriage – but there is an apparent growing rift.
Noriko clearly feels repressed and stifled by this subservience. But as the film progresses, she slowly emerges from her shell. Through her semi-autobiographical illustrations, we learn not only “Bullie” (Gyu-chan’s animated stand-in) and her's past, but also her true feelings about life, motherhood, and marriage to a difficult man. These whimsically animated sequences add a tremendous amount of depth to the film as Noriko gradually becomes the focal point.
The film leads up to a joint show - something Noriko greatly anticipates as a long-awaited release and chance to prove herself, while Gyu-chan reluctantly only humors her involvement. Despite his dismissal, Noriko is empowered and inspired for the first time since her early days as a young art student. And, much to the delight of herself and the audience, is no longer content with living in the shadow of her husband.
Overall, Cutie and the Boxer is an intimate film about not only art and the artistic process, but also marriage and personal freedom. Though the film follows a fairly traditional documentary narrative, revealing home movies, a 1970s street-styled film vignette, and several animated interludes all combine to create a fascinating and encompassing portrait of art and marriage. Director Zachary Heinzerling is a silent observer and his camera often lingers on Noriko, who at first is lonely and a bit dejected, but eventually comes alive as she finds herself again. It is fascinating and rewarding change to watch.
* * * * out of 5 stars
New Orleans Film Society will screen Cutie and the Boxer for one night only on Monday, December 16 at 7:00 p.m. at Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street).
For more information on this event and many others held year round by the NOFS, as well as membership info, you can also check the New Orleans Film Society website.
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