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Cutie and the Boxer (2013)

| January 16, 2014 | 0 Comments

Whenever I hear that a couple has been married for a long time, say 40 or 50 or even 60 years, my mind tries to consider how such a thing is possible.  What keeps people together?  How do they manage a marriage that takes up 80% of their lives?  How do you settle with another person indefinitely?  How do you deal, year after year, with someone who drives you crazy?

“Cutie and the Boxer” is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary that chooses one married couple as a means of answering those very questions.  Noriko and Ushio Shinohara are a Japanese couple who have been married for 40 years.  They aren’t quite equals.  He’s an abstract artist who hasn’t exactly made himself a household name.  Noriko seems to function, more or less, as a dutiful housewife.  She cooks, she cleans and she complains about his expensive trips to show off art that don’t yield much money.  He throws off her complains with “Hey, it’s something.”

Ushio’s art – which he creates by punching a canvas with paint-dipped boxing gloves – is popular but, he admits, nothing that anyone really wants to buy (watching him create the piece is more fun than the actual result).  He also sculpts large grotesque and colorful sculptures of motorcycles that look cool in a museum but aren’t anything that anyone wants in their home.

Noriko exists, more or less, off in the corner of Ushio’s life.  She tolerates his attempts to supplement a living making art that no one will pay money for.  Oh, he makes a little, but we can see that his meager income has forced them into a cramped living space in Brooklyn, with spaces filled by his art and other assorted clutter.  She complains about the cost, then later he comes home and slaps money on the table with a “so there” satisfaction.

The most wonderful thing about “Cutie and the Boxer” is the way in which it simply leaves us alone to observe Noriko and Ushio.  This is a movie completely devoid of talking heads.  We learn about them through their experience with each other and some flashback information that shows us how they met that gives us a template of how they got where they are.  They met in New York City, in 1969.  Noriko was a 19 year old art student; Ushio was 40 and making avant-garde art.  It was a good plan but then real life burst in the door.  They got married and circumstances forced her to be housewife and supporter of a struggling artist who would spend the next 40 years in a state of professional stalemate.

Presently, we see Noriko struggling to recapture her dream, drawing a series of cartoons called “Cutie and Bullie” which depict her life with Noriko through cherubic characters that are half-autobiographical and half-pornographic.  Their bond is touching, but we wonder what keeps them going.  As the movie opens, they have cake together Ushio woofs it down and gets frosting on his face. Noriko tells him to wipe it off but he ignores her. “I don’t listen to you,” he tells her. “That is how I stay young.”

It is that kind of connective resistance that keeps them together.  They are contentious, combative, competitive, yet somehow strangely affectionate.  There are moments that the camera captures that no screenwriter could invent.  Take a moment late in the film when Ushio finishes one of his paintings.  He asks Noriko what she thinks.  “It’s not good”, she says.  Then the camera lingers on Ushio’s face, he’s hurt and a little upset, but he never tells his wife.  The scene shifts to sometime later and we can still see the pain on his face.

Their competitive nature exists all through their marriage.  That’s especially true at they draw to an upcoming art exhibition in a New York gallery in which they will both be showing off their work.  “Art is a demon that drags you along,” Ushio says. “It’s something you can’t stop even if you should.”  What he doesn’t admit is that their respective artistic visions are the glue that binds their marriage together.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2013) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary