This week’s movie recommendation doesn’t neatly qualify as a documentary — but then again, I struggle to call it anything else. Cutie and the Boxer, directed by Zachary Heinzerling, tells the story of the wedded Japanese avant-garde artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. The film intermittently departs from the traditional documentary format and veers toward something that more closely resembles a storyboard narrative that draws on the aesthetic found in the artists’ works. The final product moves seamlessly between biographical exposition and artistic exhibition.

For those in the know—no, I confess I’m certainly not—Ushio Shinohara rose to prominence in the late ‘60s as one of the leading figures at the vanguard of “junk art.” By applying bright, garish colors to found objects like cardboard and plastic bottles and discarded engine parts, Ushio (nicknamed “Gyu-Shan”) created enormous, colorful, and vibrant sculptures and paintings that offered commentary on traditional tropes of American beauty.

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For decades, his work has been associated with two especially popular artworks in particular. The first is a set of motorcycles that range in size from massive pieces requiring a U-Haul for installation at the gallery, to miniature designs that fit comfortably inside a suitcase. They are fashioned from cardboard and trash, and then flimsily glued and taped together. The second is a set of enormous paintings from which he receives the nickname appearing in the title of the film: he attaches paint-loaded sponges to a set of boxing gloves and punches color onto a canvas until exhaustion deprives him of the energy to continue. His artwork doesn’t have much of the charm of sprezzatura—it is, after all, unquestionably effortful—but there is a deliberate appearance of nonchalance or thoughtlessness in its method.

Noriko is a fine artist in her own right. She unexpectedly found herself living with Gyu-Shan after becoming so enamored with his work that she was first his student, then his lover, then his moneylender, and then his wife. At every stage, her own work has fallen to the side as the couple enabled his career. She has processed this sacrifice through her art, which takes the form of beautiful child-like storylines dealing with the protagonist ‘Cutie’—a loosely veiled fictionalization of Noriko’s own life—struggling against the pains of obscurity, embarrassment, and shame.

Yet, for all of the mutual discomfort at Gyu-Shan’s greater success, it’s always him who seems to suffer, not her. She is able to find contentment in the little things—dance lessons, a sparsely prepared meal, the inferior display room in an art gallery—moreover, the tension between them is told through her eyes and imagination, not his.

Their relationship therefore makes it difficult to empathize with Gyu-Shan. He routinely overlooks her accomplishments, and he is too self-absorbed to understand or acknowledge the tremendous effort and patience she pours into her care for him. This prompts her to respond at one point, when asked what it’s like to live with another artist, to compare her existence with Gyu-Shan to two flowers in a pot, one depriving the other of nutrients—but on a good day, it’s still a beautiful thing to see two flowers living side by side. She tells this to a stranger, in a room adorned with art representing her inner imagination desperately pushing her husband away with the words “Leave me to my freedom!” It’s heart-wrenching.

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In the final blush, Noriko and Gyu-Shan appear happy together. They take admirable pleasure in the mischief of their lives and art, but the joy is bittersweet. For the viewer, it’s clear that there’s something so unsustainable about the lifestyle of an artist, responsible for creating something real without ever really knowing whether the efforts will be ‘worth it’ in the hoped-for sense. It’s not until the film has almost concluded, for example, that we’re provided a full view into the damage wrought by Gyu-Shan’s alcoholism and devotion to his art. These breakdowns have taken their toll on the whole family, and have doubtless been re-enacted countless times since.

While watching Cutie and the Boxer, I was reminded of 20,000 Days on Earth (reviewed here), which is another superb documentary of an artist’s method that succeeds despite being neither a documentary, nor a revelation about the artist’s method. Instead, it’s a fascinating, moving, and memorable film that will stick with you even if you have no interest in the artist or their work.

YouTube video

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.