Noriko & Ushio Shinohara on the Documentary About Their Art & Life ‘Cutie and the Boxer’

Love may be the most beautiful experience two people can share, but it is certainly never easy. For all the pleasure and joy it brings, there is a weight that comes with attaching your soul to another and a pain that comes from the howls of love that bellow inside us all. But along with those complexities, come the myriad ways that love takes shape between two people and the dynamics that form when two otherwise clashing personalities find themselves ensnared in a symbiotic but rigorous kind of affection. And for Japanese artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara, they have spent the last 40 years of their lives in tandem, married not only to each other, but to the work they have sacrificed and devoted their existence to.

With his debut documentary feature, Cutie and the Boxer, director Zachary Heinzerling gives us an observational meditation on the Shinohara’s chaotic and bizarre world, exposing their work as artists through the lens of their relationship. Known best for his boxing action paintings, Ushio began garnering recognition in the late 1960s and early 1970s, around the same time he met a talented 19-year-old artist named Noriko—and the two have been together since. The film exists as a fascinating study of creative impulse, the power dynamics of marriage, and way time shifts our perception of those we love, Cutie and the Boxer focuses largely on Noriko’s personal struggle to find her own indentity in the shadow of a husband whose work and happiness has always come first. As an artist whose whimsical yet powerfully dark comics chronicle she and Ushio’s life together, we watch her flourish into a more self-possessed woman finally able to express her own voice.
And although Heinzerling’s film gives an intimate look at a couple whose lives have endured a very specific struggle, there’s a universality in the themes that penetrate the work, hitting at the essential pressure points of artistic struggle and sacrifices we make out of commitment to that which fuels us. A couple weeks ago, I sat down with the Shinoharas to discuss their reaction to the documentary, how it changed (or did not change their perception of one another), and the future of their work.
How has it been seeing the film with an audience and how they react, not only to your work, but to your lives together?

Noriko Shinohara: I like that people like the film, I’m happy for that. But to see the film with an audience, I was surprised at how miserable I looked, because living my life, I didn’t know I was so miserable. Everybody has to struggle for their life, so I thought I’m just living—sometimes struggling, sometimes happy, but it’s my life. But oh, I look so miserable!

Ushio Shinohara: At the film festival in Missouri, the audience was very pleased with the film and there was a standing ovation and when I saw that, I thought it was really fantastic. This kind of reaction you never get from the art audience in a museum or gallery, so it was very moving. 
Was it a strange experience to have worked your whole life and then to get that kind of reaction at this stage?

NS: Artists are exhibitionists. Most of the time we show only painting or sculpture or drawing, but the film is not only for the work, but more for life. And I don’t have any embarassment to show because my life because artists make art, and it’s coming from my inside, so showing my inside is okay. People think artists are quiet and stay in the studio or stay away in the countryside, but I think that’s a lie. Artists have always been center stage, wanting to be seen by an audience. So life is the same thing. It’s like a diary and my life is like a diary and I don’t have any embarrassment to show that.

US: Getting such a reaction from the film audience is very moving, and now I’m thinking about if I could create artwork that could make people have the same type of reaction as the film. So that’s what I’m striving for now.
Did the experience of making the film and everything that’s come after change how you look at the future, both as artists and in your relationship?

NS: As an artist, that opened up the possibility for my work with animation. When Zachary took my drawings and two months later showed me part of the animation, I was surprised because I didn’t know it was possible. I thought animation takes a huge sum of money and is a big project and many people have to work, but it was done with Zach and some computer specialist. So maybe in the near future I can make the entire animation of Cutie and Bully.

US: After this film I was really influenced by the film experience, so I really want to make some type of work that would grab the audience’s heart. I’m trying to find that kind of expression in art and if it succeeds, then I’m going to be very happy.
How did you feel when Zach first approached you? Did it take a while to adjust to him being a part of your daily routine?

It took a long time before he became part of our everyday life. But he and his friend Patrick came here all the time, like once a week at first, and in that time I felt not so easy after they left and tired. But gradually they grew close to us, so it was easy. When they first started coming, I thought they were young people doing experimental work, so it would finish so soon—like just a few visits. But he kept coming. Some people film forever and they never edit, but after we gave up wondering, Zach said he made a 3-minute trailer. It was so surprising, but I thought it would take another ten more years to finish the whole movie. And last year he said, “Almost done!”

US: One thing I noticed, and I’m not very happy about is, that he was never interested in capturing the core of my art. 
Were you surprised when seeing the film that it was much more about your relationship than just your work?

NS: I knew it, because in the beginning they were trying to be like a journalist or filmmaker, so they tried to do interviews with us. But gradually, they became grownups and Zachary started his own ideas. But it took a few years too. He established his ideas, and at that time he started coming to film more of me. So I could see it was not a normal film about artists. I’m very happy with it, but actually even after he finished, I started complaining that our life is more difficult than you saw. Like when Ushio came back from Japan and I counted it the money, it wasn’t enough. I said, “It’s not enough for one months rent!” But he cuts it off because it was too bitter.

US: I find it surprising that it turned out to be a love story, but a love story without a kiss scene—but what can I say, this is a movie. 
But there is a kiss in the elevator! When she says that if you make money from your show, she’ll get to keep it. Did you ever think that your personal story would turn out to be a universal tale about love?

Relationships continue forever, all the time, all over the world so the relationship of Cutie and Bully looks extreme, I thought, but everybody agreed and most men and women laughed. To see his film and my work inside, the theme of the film is going to be universal because it’s love and relationships and the struggling of life for everybody. If the advertisement was right, people love it and I hope they see it again and again.
US: More than something that’s universal to a general audience, is that this film must be very shocking to artists, meaning that it shows no hope for artists. There is a constant struggle for fame and riches and stability and all that and they will realize that I will continue struggling.
Yes, I can see that but there’s also a hope in how passionate you both are. Art is what has fueled your life and a lot of people nowadays lack that sort of devotion and their ambition gets deluded by other concerns.
NS: If people can feel more passionate or encouraged after seeing the film, I think people can see more chance.
US: I agree that this will give a hope to audiences—the fact that we are together and struggling to make art—but for me, art is still a demon. I’m still being dragged around by this demon to hell and I will continue to fight until I die to make things. This I learned from the masters of Renaissance art and their lives.
Watching the film together, have you learned a lot about each other or see things from a different perspective now?
NS: I did not learn anything and it did not change anything. 
US: What I realized learned, was that she has always loved me. That’s the first time I realized that, after I watched the movie and that’s actually a fantastic thing. When I started 40 years ago, when we started together, I actually thought that she was actually a drag to my art career.
[Noriko sighs, then laughs]
She would steal my paints and that was a problem. She even  stole my liquor and that was a problem!
NS: He didn’t have money to buy his on liquor and he invited me to live with him and was watching my bank account to pay his rent.
US: I think that she’s actually grown since Zach came and started filming us because all these interviews and shooting, it’s made her confident.
NS: That’s a lie. I started Cutie in the beginning of 2006 and the idea of Cutie came in 2002, so in those times I was searching my inside. Those years are the process of my growing up, not the time of Zach. When Zach came that was nearing the end of my comic book—I already did it before I met him. So my educating of myself came before that. He tried to ignore it because he saw only what went through the camera, that’s why he said so, but it came before. I established over there, [points to her section of the studio] my country. At that time we had only one space, and Uishio was working here and it was so mixed, so one day I established, that’s my country, never bother me over there. So living with him for 40 years I was educating myself and it all came to shape after 2010.
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