Observational documentary must, it seems, walk a perpetual tightrope; with its sights set on an elusive realism, there is always the danger of subjects that are unable to provide the desired naturalism when in front of a cameraman and crew. In the case of Zachary Heinzerling’s fantastic new film, Cutie and the Boxer (2013), he has worked at building a rapport with Ushio and Noriko Shinohara over five years and it has paid dividends. The resulting piece, released in UK cinemas this week, is a exceptionally authentic and warm portrait of love and creativity amid the impoverished end of the New York art scene.
An octogenarian Japanese artist, Ushio (‘The Boxer’) is most famous for his boxing paintings in which – as the title sequence of the film relays – he belies his years by launching into an assault on the canvas in boxing gloves dripping with emulsion. Having visited New York for inspiration in the sixties and never left, he later met fellow Japanese-immigrant, Noriko (‘Cutie’). She was in the city living on her parents money and two got together, with the latter becoming wife and assistant to the chauvinistic and confident Ushio. Their dynamic is easily visible through their behaviour with one another in their cramped apartment; the confidence and trust that they have with Heinzerling coming through in their genuine exchanges.
They throw jabs at one another – largely Noriko bemoaning Ushio’s domineering nature – but you can be sure that they will always kiss and make up once the bell has rung. Although Ushio appears to be the star of the show, it soon becomes evident that it is Noriko whose story we are watching, much to her ostentatious husband’s chagrin. Noriko has now managed to break away and forge her own studio space within which she has begun to tell their story through a series of ornate, traditional cartoons from which the nickname ‘Cutie’ is taken. The film seizes on and animates these, adding Noriko’s voice-over and interspersing them with footage of the present as a reminder both of Ushio’s long-running demons and more importantly his long-suffering wife’s resilience.
The fact that she is given her own show may irritate Ushio (for whom she is just an assistant) but it leads to Cutie and the Boxer’s most tender and heart-warming moment. When he finally bothers to take note of her work, he sees the characters of ‘Cutie’ and ‘Bully’ (his nickname in the work) for who they are. “Cutie hates Bully?” he asks one night out of the blue. “No,” replies Noriko, “Cutie loves Bully very much.” It’s a touching sentiment at the beating heart of this warm and human documentary.
Cutie and the Boxer is released in UK cinemas on 1 November, 2013.