The nature of relationships is a constant give and take. One person gives over their time and energy in order to make the other one happy and for them to do the same in return. Of course this is an idealization that never works out as being totally fifty-fifty. One person is inevitably going to give more than they take and vice-versa. The constant exchange is a morphing blob that changes over time. Once fame enters the picture and the nature of art dips its toe in, the relationship becomes skewed and leans towards the one who is more famous if not more talented. For Noriko and Ushio Shinohara, the balance is a tricky balancing act that always leaves one person with most of the burden.
Ushio Shinohara is a famous painter in the vein of a Jackson Pollack or a folk artist. He makes action paintings as well as creates large motorcycles out of found objects. He moved from Japan where he was a local celebrity to New York City in the seventies only to become the most famous example of a starving artist. When Noriko was still in art school, she visited New York City and Ushio’s studio there only to be struck by the dynamic personality that waited for her there. She became star struck and convinced that Ushio will one day be very famous and a prolific artist. At the time Ushio was more than twice her age. Noriko pushed aside her art and began to look after this man-child alcoholic as well as a newborn boy and become the backbone of the family. But Noriko is jealous of Ushio’s art coming first and his talent. She comes to resent him while also still caring for him deeply. Now that they have sobered up, grown older and watched their son become a man, they are still fighting this internal struggle within themselves and also with each other. Noriko decides to take her experiences with Ushio and use them in as inspiration for her drawings. Her spark of inspiration and love for art is back.
At the heart of this documentary is Noriko’s growth into a complete human being separate from her husband. She is a strong-willed and slightly resentful person, but comes to accept that the experiences she has had with her husband has shaped her art and life. Once she embraces her relationship with her husband fully, then she can truly start to make art again.
The moments that I think most demonstrate the director’s intent on making this movie are the times that the couple sits around the dinner table. The first dinner we see is prepared by Noriko and presented in a beautiful way. Once Ushio receives his plate, he digs in with his fingers thus ruining the presentation. Noriko chides him for doing this and wondering why she cooks anything anymore. Ushio has a penchant for destruction that is obvious in his work and in his past. He was a raging alcoholic before he was forced by his doctor to get sober due to health reasons. He put a huge financial and emotional strain on his family by delving so deep into alcohol. Which brings me to the second dinner that is noteworthy in the story. At this point we are barely aware that Noriko and Ushio had a child. We are introduced to him when his parents greet as he comes into the their apartment already drunk. Being around Ushio’s drinking for so long has spoiled their son’s resistance to it. At one point during the dinner with his parents, he goes to the fridge, pours a huge glass of wine and gulps it all down in an impressive amount of time. He needs that fix just like Ushio did. Noriko expresses regret later on in the movie that she let him grow up in that kind of atmosphere. She wishes that Ushio was there for their son more and more sober in their past lives. The third dinner that illustrates their relationship dynamic is one that Ushio cooks. He cooks celery hamburgers for his wife and child. Once it is served Noriko calls the hamburger dry without skipping a beat. Ushio doesn’t want Noriko to be left out of the art world or his life. He doesn’t want her shouldering all of the responsibilities. However when he takes over some responsibilities, like cooking this dinner, he messes it up because he is so inexperienced so Noriko has to step in and save the day with some sauce or a whole new dish.
Cutie and the Boxer is an interesting examination of a long-term relationship. It suffers from being too long without coming to a satisfying conclusion, but for the most part it is an entertaining and mind opening watch.