An 80-something-year-old man puts on boxing gloves with paint-soaked sponges strapped on them. With furious energy that belies his age, he assaults a large canvas, punching with his eyes closed, leaving a spatter with each blow. After a minute, most of the canvas is covered in these artful bruises. Such is the work process of dadaist Ushio Shinohara.
A 60-something-year-old woman prepares a breakfast for her husband. It’s his birthday, so she gets him a piece of cake with fruit on it. She nudges the cat out of the way as she goes to rouse him from sleep, which takes a bit of doing, since he’s childishly refusing to leave the bed. She needs him to cooperate so that she can take care of everything else that needs her attention in their small apartment. Such is the day of Noriko Shinohara.
Noriko and Ushio met in New York in the 1970’s, and bonded over their mutual Japanese origin and love of art. He was 41 and had lived in the United States for a while, making minor waves with his boxing paintings and motorcycle sculptures. She was 19, fresh off the boat, and enamored of his restless, driven spirit. They married not long after meeting, and they’ve been together ever since. Cutie and the Boxer is a visit with this delightful couple, a portrait of the artist as an irrepressible manchild and his wife as the weary caretaker.
Though both of them love to create, Noriko long ago sublimated her own artistic desires as she raised their child. Ushio devoted himself to alternating between the art and getting horribly drunk. They’ve spent decades on the precipice of poverty, with Ushio never quite gaining the clout to break into the mainstream, and frequently pissing away the money he has been able to earn. There is a clear unease lurking in their relationship, borne of long-held resentment. Yet it’s overpowered by the affection that the two still hold for one another. It’s strange, because on the surface, Noriko and Ushio seem like the kind of elderly couple who stick together solely out of inertia, and yet there’s a clear warmth there, evident only in the nuances of their interactions.
Ushio is the famous one, but seeing Noriko in action is far more interesting, and it would not be surprising if it turned out that the documentary was originally to focus solely on him, but changed direction when the filmmakers realized what a find they’d made with her. After years as a dutiful housewife, Noriko is exercising her creative muscle again, drawing her own comic book based on her life. In her skillful pictures, her relationship with Ushio is dramatized and exaggerated as a comical romantic tug-of-war between “Cutie” and “Bullie.” Cutie is innocent and frequently bewildered by the boorishness of her boozy lover, who often resembles an overgrown infant. But she cares for him regardless, and in these pictures you get a sense of why Noriko has stuck with this silly man all these years.
Cutie and the Boxer is an unexpected but fully welcome treat. It’s a great look at how both relationships and the creative instinct evolve over a long time. There’s a subtle suggestion that Noriko’s artistry has flourished while Ushio’s has waned in recent years, and that now might be “her turn” to shine. No matter what happens, they’ll be by each others’ sides. And there’s something sweet and comforting about that.