‘Cutie and the Boxer’ – A Conversation With Zach Heinzerling

“Cutie and the Boxer.” (Photo: Zach Heinzerling)

This month Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents Zach Heinzerling’s feature debut documentary, “Cutie and the Boxer.” One of five films nominated for the “Best Documentary Feature” at this year’s Academy Awards, “Cutie” is a poignant, bittersweet and clear-eyed portrait of two artists – married to each other – and the complex balancing act they have found negotiating martial relations and artistic aspirations.

A reflection on love, sacrifice, and the creative spirit, “Cutie” explores the chaotic 40-year marriage of renowned “boxing” painter Ushio Shinohara and his artist wife, Noriko. As a rowdy, confrontational young artist in Tokyo, Ushio seemed destined for fame, but met with little commercial success after he moved to New York City in 1969, seeking international recognition. When 19-year-old Noriko moved to New York to study art, she fell in love with Ushio-abandoning her education to become the wife and assistant to an unruly, husband. Over the course of their marriage, the roles have shifted. Now 80, Ushio struggles to establish his artistic legacy, while Noriko is at last being recognized for her own art-a series of drawings entitled “Cutie,” depicting her challenging past with Ushio. Spanning four decades, the film is a moving portrait of a couple wrestling with the eternal themes of sacrifice, disappointment and aging, against a background of lives dedicated to art.

Prior to “Cutie and the Boxer” you made a short film about Ushio and Noriko, which you then used as a starting point for this feature. How were you introduced to them and how did that short inform how “Cutie” was structured?

ZH: I was introduced to the Shinoharas in 2008 by a close friend of mine, Patrick Burns. Patrick had met them about a year earlier and had taken some photographs of them for a class he was taking. He showed me the photographs and mentioned the idea of doing a short day-in-the-life film about this unique artist couple. I brought over my camera and we shot for a few hours. Upon first meeting them they were very eager to share their story. Ushio performed a boxing painting, showed us his method of turning cardboard into motorcycles, and explained the history of the Neo-Dada Organizers–the avant-garde art group he became famous for founding in 1960’s Tokyo. We were overwhelmed with material. Noriko was a bit more reserved with her artwork, but was quick to tell us what a terrible husband Ushio was and how he had stolen her painting methods and her color choices when she was young. While it all seemed humorous at first, we knew there was depth to this story. We sensed that the quibbles and bickering were a sign of a deeper resentment Noriko felt towards Ushio. While the short is mostly about their daily routine making art, it contains the seeds to a much more layered portrait of their complicated relationship.

“Cutie and the Boxer” finds a fine balance in the kinds of cultural mythologies it works from. You do not romanticize the Shinohara’s difficult marriage, but do tap into myths of the dreams and aspirations of struggling artists and immigrants. The Shinoharas are in this way very complicated people! How did they conform to, or defy your expectations as you grew to know them, and how did this inform the way you wished to represent them?

ZH: My curiosity was always driven by what aspects of their lives they were less eager to divulge. For instance, their aspirations as artists were always clear. You can see them in every aspect of their lives: the forty years of paint droplets coating the floors of their shabby loft; the vigor with which Ushio struts, paints, and punches; the precise and careful brush strokes and the tragic yet blunt subject matter of Noriko’s “Cutie” comics. Their thoughts about art and their goals in life were never in question. However when it came to the subject of their relationship, they were hesitant to describe how they felt about each other. The answer to why they were still together was always one of pragmatic terms. “We are together because it is easier to pay rent as a couple then as individuals.” But I was convinced there was something else there. The process of making the film became the process of figuring out methods of exposing truths in their relationship. I began letting them interact with each other and waiting for moments of clarity to arise, as opposed to asking them questions directly. Attempting to discover and display moments where the bond that has kept them together for over forty years shone through.

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Much of the film is focused on a shifting dynamic that occurs within the Shinohara’s marriage, which was one-sided for many years, as Noriko begins to flower as an artist and step outside of Ushio’s shadow. Interpersonal dynamics are delicate and cameras can often alter them. During the several years that you spent time with and shot the Shinoharas, how did you negotiate the impact of your presence in their changing relationship? Do you feel that you contributed to the dynamics which unfolded?

ZH: When I began filming the Shinoharas, the shift in the dynamic of their relationship was already well under way. Noriko had established her studio space in their loft, had begun the “Cutie” series, and was fighting back against her egotistical husband through her art. However, I do think that the attention I was giving Noriko while I was filming may have galvanized this shift. Ushio was certainly keen to the fact that I was spending more time with Noriko and that the balance of how they were being represented in the film was tipped. Noriko at times has said that this made Ushio jealous. Though Ushio never expressed that sentiment to me. Since the film has been released, Ushio has been much more supportive of Noriko and her artwork. I think that the attention that the film has given Noriko is a part of this change in attitude, but only a part.

So much about producing art is about clarity of vision and reaching audiences. This film has been a fairly high profile way of self-reflection and promotion for the Shinoharas. What has been the impact of the film on the Shinoharas, as a couple, and as artists?

ZH: First as a couple: From what Ushio has said in recent Q and A’s, the film has given him a new perspective on their relationship. After seeing the film many times, he says that he know realizes both the pain Noriko went through early on in their marriage, but also the love she has always had for him. I’m not sure whether this has any impact on the relationship or not, but it’s certainly interesting to hear him say this. For Noriko, in many ways she has taken ownership over the film and used it almost as a weapon in this eternal battle she has waged against her husband. It is her story. And it is the story of how she overcame her husband’s bullying and narcissism to become an independent artist in her own right. As artists, the film has led to increased sales of their artwork, gallery shows in several cities where the film has premiered, and in general a more keen awareness of their story and their struggle as artists.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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