Looks are certainly deceiving where Ushio Shinohara is concerned. He is a diminutive albeit spry octogenarian, a former boxer still with something of an athlete’s frame. He’s also an artist, one whose creative process draws as much attention as the finished pieces. To produce his most eye-catching works he dons a pair of sponge-wrapped boxing gloves, dips them in paint and proceeds to wallop the hell out of an innocent canvas, leaving punches of colour in his wake. The finished results usually look more-or-less the same but like any artist Ushio Shinohara knows if he’s hit the creative sweet-spot with any particular piece.
Shinohara’s art is very much like his personality; brash, instinctive and forthright. He would make a good subject for a documentary even on his own but he reluctantly shares the limelight with his wife, Noriko. She is also an artist and she produces characterful, expressionistic cartoon stories about ‘Cutie’ and ‘Bullie,’ personalities based on herself and her husband.
The Shinoharas are used to austerity; their profession hasn’t proven to be very lucrative. We see the pressure they feel to sell their work to pay the bills and in one home video flashback a younger Ushio is visibly distressed by the difficulty of the artistic lifestyle. Over their 40-year relationship Noriko has acted as little more than her husband’s assistant; he certainly doesn’t regard her as an artist in her own right. Sycophantic art dealers visit Ushio’s studio to watch him at work but Noriko’s art seems to be more appealing. Ushio is perturbed by his wife’s increasing credibility in the art world.
Zachary Heinzerling spent several years documenting the couple’s daily lives, capturing them at work in the studio and at rest in their small, cluttered apartment. It is an intimate description of two people completely committed to their vocation despite its challenges. Their son, Alex, features at one point and while he clearly struggles with some personal difficulties of his own Heinzerling doesn’t condescend to attribute their cause to his parents alone.
The story of the Shinoharas’ past is weaved into the Cutie and Bullie cartoons that Noriko creates, which are also integrated into the narrative of Cutie and the Boxer. They are turned into elegant, self-effacing animations that stand in stark contrast to Ushio’s violent, ostentatious work.
Despite the differences in their temperaments and their art, the Shinoharas remain united. We are not encouraged to pity them or lament their situation on their behalf. Instead we are moved to admire their singular dedication to their craft and the faith they place in each other. We get to know the Shinoharas through this documentary, their strengths, insecurities and eccentricities. Most importantly, we get to see what it means to be an artist above all and how liberating it can be for those who give their lives to pursue their craft.