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Cutie and the Boxer

Posted by martinteller on October 7, 2013

Ushio Shinohara was an artist of some renown is his home country of Japan when he relocated to New York in the 60’s.  His style of action painting is a Dada-esque expression of male aggression, taking form primarily as sculptures of deformed motorcycles and huge canvasses that he covers by punching them with boxing gloves dipped in paint.  In the 70’s, he met Noriko, 21 years his junior, and the two wed.  Noriko was an aspiring artist herself, but her life was overtaken by domestic responsibilities, especially caring for their son Alex and coping with Ushio’s alcoholism.  Now she has returned to her art, stepping out of her husband’s influence and creating her own graphic novel-styled work inspired by their relationship (with characters named “Cutie” and “Bullie”).

Films that eloquently speak about the creative process always strike a chord with me.  Coupling this with the study of two such intriguing personalities makes it a very compelling film indeed.  There is a charm and ease to the interactions between these two, but the movie does not shy away from the struggles, both financial and emotional.  There is humor and familiarity to their banter, but it doesn’t mask the conflict between them.  They’re charmingly dysfunctional.  Noriko lives in Ushio’s shadow, and he shows little respect or interest in her work.  Over the course of the narrative, we get a sense that he is starting to gain an appreciation for her talents, but it’s not necessarily a Spielbergian happy ending (little inside joke there for those who have seen the movie).  Their marriage has clearly been rocky and Noriko’s anger is revealed in her work.  One can guess that some of Ushio’s uglier qualities might come to the fore if her career should start to eclipse his.

And one gets the impression that Ushio is yesterday’s news.  He’s relying on old techniques, going through the motions, cranking out product.  Noriko’s work is fresh and expressive… Ushio’s is an attempt to keep relevant without evolving.  The two struggle to keep up with their rent and bills, and promising sales opportunities seem to fizzle out.

There’s so much to this movie that I could go on and on.  Every scene is funny or sad or reveals some interesting new facet about either their marriage, their art or both.  And the music by Yasuaki Shimizu (who also scored Who’s Camus Anyway?, one of my favorites) is gorgeous as well.  I have one small nitpick, though.  First-time director Zachary Heinzerling uses the device of animating still pictures which is all the rage in documentaries these days.  I’m beyond bored with this technique, which I find cheap and condescending (the audience can deal with still images for a few seconds), and disrespectful when applied to someone else’s art, as he does here with the “Cutie” drawings.  It’s not necessary, the art tells the story well enough on its own.

This minor quibble aside, I was enthralled with this movie, one of the best I’ve seen all year.  Beautiful, funny, touching, and thought-provoking.  It inspires you to express yourself with art, and gives you hope that your own relationship can survive four decades of strife and still be worth all the strife and struggle.  Wonderful insight into creativity and devotion, a delicate balance of feel-good entertainment and sobering realities.  Rating: Great (90)


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