Cutie and the Boxer is the story of an extraordinary marriage between two people bound together by their artistic impulse. The movie opens on the morning of the 80th birthday of Ushio Shinohara, the Japanese artist best known for his impressionistic boxing paintings — huge canvases he punched with gloves dipped in brightly colored paint. For the occasion, his wife Noriko has bought him a pair of cushy slippers shaped like ducks. They sit down to have cake in their ramshackle Brooklyn apartment, which is overstuffed with artwork and sculptures and clutter. Ushio gobbles the sweet and gets frosting on his face. Noriko tells him to wipe it off but he ignores her. “I don’t listen to you,” he tells her. “That is how I stay young.”
With that exchange, director Zachary Heinzerling, who was granted unusual access into the couple’s lives, establishes the tone of their marriage — combative, competitive, embattled yet strangely affectionate. Ushio is unusually fit and sprightly for his age; Noriko, who is 21 years younger, often comes off as the more mature of the two. Although Ushio’s art (which also includes colorful sculptures of motorcycles) is well known, it never made him rich. In the early scenes, Noriko is worrying about money for rent and utilities. Ushio, as is his wont, waves away her concerns, knowing they’ll somehow find a way to pay the bills. “The average one has to support the genius,” Ushio cracks wise. “You are so pitiful,” his wife shoots back.
In flashbacks presented as animation based on Noriko’s comic-book style art depicting their marriage, Cutie and the Boxer shows how the couple met in New York when she was 19 and she visited his studio. He charmed her with wit and personality, and six months later she was pregnant with their son, Alex. But although critics and the art world celebrated him, Ushio was never able to capitalize on his talents. He became an alcoholic (the movie contains video footage of him from the 1980s, plastered out of his mind), leaving Noriko to essentially raise their son by herself.
“I did the best I could to raise my child,” Noriko says almost apologetically, after a scene in which the now-grown Alex drops in for a visit and is clearly drunk. Because Ushio and Noriko know how to express themselves with words as eloquently as with art, Cutie and the Boxer achieves a level of emotional complexity that is rare for documentaries. Seemingly trivial moments lead to fascinating confrontations: When Ushio dismisses Steven Spielberg’s recent movies as trash and claims every artist makes his or her best work when young, Noriko asks him “So why [do you] continue?” He has no answer.
Although much of the documentary is free-form, Cutie and the Boxer eventually starts to focus on an upcoming exhibition at a New York gallery in which their works will be shown together for the first time. The event brings out the couple’s competitive nature: He tries to downplay her talent, while Noriko is eager to prove she is her husband’s equal. “Art is a demon that drags you along,” Ushio says. “It’s something you can’t stop even if you should.” This remarkable documentary argues that art can also be the glue that binds disparate souls.