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Review: Cutie and the Boxer


This award-winning documentary follows the active artistic relationship and chaotic 40-year marriage between Neo-Dadaist pioneer Ushio, and Noriko Shinohara, who have blazed the trail for Japanese Contemporary Art in New York City for decades.

More like people, or subjects. The documentary predominately focuses on Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, although furry cats often make an appearance, and an art curator or two.

I feel with some artists, like Jackson Pollock or Rainer Werner Fassbender, art was their life. They could eat and breathe, but creativity was first and foremost. Why this compulsion? Is it an endless search for beauty, a stubborn drive for perfection? I’m not sure. I think art just…does that to us. Makes us curious, often obsessive. The new documentary Cutie and the Boxer, about the anarchic Japanese boxing painter Ushio Shinohara, seems to graze the surface of a similar compulsion.

Francois Truffaut said that film should express “the joy of making cinema or the agony.” He wasn’t interested in anything in-between. While he was referencing film, undoubtedly that notion can be writ large. The closing sequence of Cutie and the Boxer shows Ushio and wife/sparring partner Noriko, in slow motion to a classical score, boxing head-to-head – uppercuts are shared. Here, joy and agony explodes (literally – you have to see the paint), as does a resemblance to the Thieving Magpie Overture fisticuffs in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

It’s one of the most playful moments in a documentary that, to me, doesn’t deeply penetrate the lives of these two people. Directed by first-timer Zachary Heinzerling (and congrats to his success so far, being picked up by The Weinstein Company and Mongrel Media), Cutie and the Boxer seems to be content with uncritical observations and sentimental montages of its subjects, nothing much more.

The film says the basics: Ushio and Noriko are talented in their own unique ways; without his wife, Ushio wouldn’t be alive, or as successful, and as short of breath. I mean with the latter that the couple often bicker back-and-forth while the paint dries. When the paint is wet, the two have their claws to the canvas creating like that is what they were made to do.

Noriko specializes in a kind of pencil-etched artwork of weird-headed, muscular creatures in motion (Heinzerling uses them as animated transitions; merely a cute touch). Ushio is an iconoclastic pioneer of the Neo-Dadaist movement in 1960s Japan. His works, like Andy Warhol’s, are appreciated more for their vitality than beauty. His boxing paintings evoked the energy of making art, and the need for audacity and rebellion.

In 1969, Ushio left for New York, his dream city, where he would marry Noriko ten years later. The documentary consists of us observing them as they paint in their loft, and showcase their work at the art gallery curated by New York’s Ethan Cohen. Ushio and Noriko eventually set up the “Roarrr!!” exhibit, which includes murals and parodies of frescos. As viewers, we’re meant to admire the art work and the accomplishments of the subjects.

The documentary runs only 82 minutes. When it ended, I didn’t feel completely fulfilled. Heinzerling shoots everything with quiet interest, but his classical score announces our emotions. The film says the bare minimum, but overlooks two urging questions: 1) how did Ushio and Noriko adjust to one of the world’s biggest megalopolises, and 2) how has their art evolved over the course of time?

Heinzerling doesn’t seem interested in these finer points. Observational documentaries like Cutie and the Boxer should aim for this kind of lived-in precision, but there is only a surfeit of sentimentality and glib appreciation for these artists’s achievements. Cutie and the Boxer is a documentary that has a watchable effect of phoning in a closeness to the subjects, but really staying, in the end, aloof from a deeper sincerity.

Should You See It?
Possibly, but it’s more of a rental – unless you have to see boxing painting explode on the big screen. I’d advise in the meantime just take up the craft yourself, you southpaw you.


[star v=3]