A year ago, I watched the documentary, Cutie and the Boxer, about the tumultuous marriage of artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara. Since then, first-time director Zachary Heinzerling has won the 2013 Sundance Film Festival award for best director, and was nominated for a 2014 Oscar in documentary film. The Oscar nomination, as noted by the New York Times awards season blogger, Larry Rohter, “…is a bit of an outlier in the feature documentary category […] it focuses not on upheaval or genocide but on Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, a pair of Japanese artists who are also husband and wife.”
Heinzerling in an interview with Rohter, shares that the film took five years to make. During the first three years of filming, the Shinoharas treated Heinzerling too much like a journalist and were too aware of his presence. After a while, he was able to observe and record their relationship in their messy Brooklyn apartment as the “fly on the wall” that he wanted to be. It was as if Heinzerling had become as benign as a piece of household furniture, because they spoke in his company as if he wasn’t even there. He was able to capture the tiny evidences of a relationship built on the unsteady foundation of sacrifice, including the Shinoharas’ acrid remarks, and their pervasive even-toned bickering.
The complexity of the Shinohara’s relationship is expressed both in their story and in their present moments on film, including when Ushio says to the camera in reference to Noriko, his wife, “The average one has to support the genius.”
Their story unromantically starts in the early 1970s. Nineteen-year-old Noriko, an art student, travels to New York from Tokyo and meets the then 41-year-old Ushio painter/sculptor in SoHo. She is dazzled by his passion. She falls in love, they sleep together, she gets pregnant, her parents cut off her financial aid, she puts her own creative aspirations on hold as she raises their son Alex, struggling to make rent, all while Ushio continues with his “boxing paintings”—a method where Ushio punches a canvas with a boxing glove dipped in paint. Long story short: they spend the next 35-years as struggling artists in an embittered marriage.
Throughout the documentary, Noriko responds to Ushio’s belittling comments with her own acerbic quips, and as a viewer you can feel the weight of the compromises she’s had to make as an artist to become wife to the temperamental Ushio. In an interview with Melissa Leon of The Daily Beast Ushio says by way of a translator, “The fact that she [Noriko] stopped going to school and started working with me was the best move in order for her to become a good artist. For artists, your private life takes a big role in what you create,” he says. “Especially with the type of art that we make.”
Let’s, for a moment, forget that Ushio is prime pinata material for a feminist’s birthday party. Let’s forget that he’s constantly speaking for Noriko despite her measured objections. Let’s put their relationship dynamics aside, and focus on the second to last sentence of his statement: “For artists, your private life takes a big role in what you create.” The inability to keep life out of art is what might make an artist an artist from, say, a hobbyist. Artists are in the work of risking something of themselves—the private made vulnerable through their art. I think for Ushio and Noriko, their private lives, and in particular their relationship informs their art even at the cost of their contentment.
Not all artists need difficult and painful relationships to make art. But what I think they need, at least what I absolutely need, is a partner that challenges and provides some sort of tension. It can be the ability to say “no,” or to tell me I’m wrong, or to suggest some other way, to ask the questions I hadn’t thought to ask. Or maybe it’s the imbalance between their knowing and my not knowing something (like an encyclopedic knowledge of salmon). It’s a sort of rubbing, of coming up against something that entails discussion and intellectual inquiry, to be with someone that is willing to occupy that space. Whatever it is, that tension has to exist, yet it doesn’t have to come at the cost of happiness.
To clarify, I’m not writing about contentment, which equates to being comfortable and complacent. Being content feels like a closing, a finishing, a nap after a satisfying meal. What I’m trying to describe is closer to the pursuit of awe and the insatiable search for wonderment. Artists are seekers. The seeking never ends. The loop never closes. There’s always more to learn, and it’s about being with someone that helps you to see better, or, and in the case of the Shinoharas, in more divergent ways as you continually search.
Watching the documentary, it’s easy to point fingers, to oversimplify and to make Ushio out to be a domineering egomaniac who has a tendency toward revisionist history, and Noriko the precious victim who has become the miserable handmaiden to her tyrant of a husband. What makes this film Oscar-worthy is that Heinzerling is adept at flushing out the complexities in their relationship despite the Shinohara’s depressed living quarters, their inability to keep their power on at times, the tense and disappointed remarks between Ushio and Noriko, and the clear roles they have taken on in their marriage because of duty, circumstance, and complicity.
But, above all else, there is art. Their relationship as noted in the New York Timesmovie review written by A.O. Scott is a study of opposites, “This is a portrait of two talented, charismatic artists of strikingly different styles and sensibilities who happen to be married to each other. Their years together supply a frame around the art, which properly occupies the foreground: Ushio’s abstract paintings and fantastical cardboard figures; Noriko’s ink-washed, cartoon-like drawings.”
How does an artist exist in a relationship? What does the relationship mean for the art and the artist? For Noriko, she’s found a way. Toward the end of the movie, at nearly 60-years-old, she begins to gain recognition for her “Cutie and the Bullie” drawings, a visual autobiography of her marriage to Ushio. In a separate interview, she tells Leon of The Daily Beast, “It took 35 years for me to find Cutie on my own. My life has been bitter and difficult. But without that bitterness, as I had said in the film, my Cutie [wouldn’t have been] born.”