“The average one has to support the genius”
TV producer Zachary Heinzerling may have set out to make a documentary about two artists, but what he filmed was love. Not the storybook love of a man sweeping a woman off her feet to live happily ever after in piece, harmony, and financial stability, though. No, for Noriko Shinahara and Ushio Shinohara—the titular Cutie and the Boxer—love meant pain, suffering, poverty, and the unwavering, inexplicable connection that never broke between them. There was some sweeping—Ushio was a forty-one year old action painter seen in photographs hobnobbing with Andy Warhol who captured the attention and heart of Noriko’s teenage immigrant art student—but as you can glean from her newest semi-autobiographical, painted comic strip, the fairy tale dream of fame and fortune ended the second they met.
Luckily or unluckily, they’re true artists who’d do anything for their craft. He’s a tortured alcoholic who’d strip naked and dance at the dinner table full of equally inebriated friends while his young son bathed in the tub. She was a painter promised room and space to create alongside him before motherhood and his already rising star forced a premature retirement from the vocation she aspired to conquer. They lived in squalor and still survive paycheck-to-paycheck selling sculptures worth ten grand for three simply to secure utilities will remain turned on for one more month. They fought when he’d buy liquor before milk and still debate how a trip to Japan is fiscally sound when they are late with rent. But through it all we see the permanent love—and frustration—in their gaze towards the other.
A fly-on-the-wall document of their lives in Ushio’s eightieth year—with vignettes of Noriko’s animated characters—we witness the chauvinism still ingrained in his blue-collar artistic mind as well as the inner strength she’s allowing to come out through both a newfound creative renaissance and interactions with her husband. We see how their son Alex has grown to be a brush painter like mom and a drunk like dad, sleepwalking the day and following in the footsteps of the only way of life he’d ever experienced. And while we need home videos and archival news footage to see the extent of Ushio’s volatility, it’s still seen in his contemplative glances towards the camera when Noriko says something he doesn’t like. Whatever he said to get her in bed doesn’t excuse his view that she’ll always be his assistant.
Despite the undercurrents of what 39-years of marriage has wrought, we know only death could tear them apart. She states she’s tired or not quite enthusiastic about fulfilling his career, but she helps him just the same. Noriko is her husband’s biggest fan and supporter—willing even to tell him when a gigantic canvas isn’t good—and truly would find a genuine thank you to be a prize worth more than anything. Even though Ushio is sober now for health reasons, however, I’m not sure he could ever truly give her that. But there’s something about that struggle and fight which keeps them passionate about each other and their respective work. Brand new work now that she’s creating with a lifetime of pain for inspiration and he without alcohol in his bloodstream.
There is vibrancy in this truth, an immeasurable level of creativity we see through their glinting eyes and wide smiles as they work with satisfaction. It’s a wordless display of life, expressions saying so much through the context of where they’ve been and the determination necessary to still be standing as a result. This intangible brightness juxtaposes against the colors dripping off Ushio’s boxing gloves as he pounds paint onto an upright canvas as well as the blinding reds contrasting Noriko’s monochromatic surrogates drawn as humorous catharsis for the reality she endured. If they agree on anything besides their love for one another it is the power to create and watch as their art touches its audience. You don’t have to like the canvases, but you cannot deny the power of the journey leading to them.
Heinzerling captures some wonderfully eloquent philosophies on behalf of both, but the show really belongs to Noriko and her doppelganger “Cutie”. After decades in the “master’s” shadow she has reclaimed her voice to prove a worth beyond that of Mrs. Shinohara. It isn’t Ushio with his assistant in tow, but instead a team of likeminded individuals who fell madly in love with each other because of the disparate worldviews they held. When he laughs and says, “I need you” in response to her stating he’d leave if he had the money to pay for a real assistant, we know both are right. He’s needed her to survive and she him to discover how to create from within. It was a hard life neither would change, but I’m sure their paint-filled slugfest during the end credits helped release resentment.