I might have missed Ushio and Noriko Shinohara’s apartment if it wasn’t for the doorbell and the little handwritten sign above it. Now it seems so obvious. Around their home there’s a bridal shop, some nice places for lunch, and chic spots that speak of the city’s continually changing face. Their building, however, has the vibe of an older New York, which is crucial to so much of the documentary Cutie and the Boxer. The film is about the unique relationship between Ushio and Noriko. The couple have been artists in the city for decades and continue to create and care for one another.
“They’re the last of a dying breed in some ways,” said the documentary’s director Zach Heinzerling. “They live in this cave in DUMBO where nothing like this exists around it. Every other building has been renovated, and this one hasn’t.”
“We can make this like a history museum,” Noriko laughed.
Their apartment is like a history museum already, or maybe a time capsule. They moved to DUMBO from SoHo in 1986, and the rooms feel long lived in. The book spines and VHS labels have all comfortably yellowed. This is how the New York artist lived when artists could still afford to live in New York.
I sat down with Zach, Ushio, and Noriko in the studio space that adjoins the living room. We were surrounded by a chaos of colorful artwork in various stages of completion.
[Thanks to Ryuhei Shindo, one of the film’s producers, for translating Ushio Shinohara’s responses.]
One of the most striking things about Cutie and the Boxer is the verite, fly-on-the-wall feel of the film. A narrative forms simply through observation and editing, and yet there’s a naturalism to the footage, whether it involves Ushio and Noriko at home or showing their work for galleries. To achieve this with without succumbing to the observer effect (i.e., people change their behavior when a camera is present), trust needs to develop between a documentary filmmaker and the subjects. This grew over the course of the five-year shoot, but in some ways it wasn’t too much of a change for either Ushio or Noriko.
“They’ve both been documented, and Ushio especially,” Zach explained. “He loves the camera, he encourages people to film him.”
Ushio was already a famous artist in Japan before moving to New York. “Cameras would just come and film my private life, so it’s nothing that would affect me,” he said. “When I was being filmed by Japanese crews [in New York], one of my favorite things to do was go out drinking with the crew without Noriko.” Ushio recalled that the Japanese crews would bring lots of money to spend while following Ushio around. “I really enjoyed the whole process a lot. So when Zach came and filmed, it was no detriment to anything.”
“Except we didn’t go out drinking afterwards,” Zach laughed.
“Zach used to stay until 12:00 AM or 1:00 AM,” Noriko added. “[Basically] until he became tired and went home. At first he didn’t drink so much, not at the time. Now I can see he can drink a whole bottle of wine,” she laughed.
While Noriko generally concurred with Ushio given that artists are used to a certain kind of creative exhibitionism, she said that she still had to get used to Zach’s presence. By the end of the shooting process, she thought of Zach as a natural part of their home, like a coffee cup.
One part of this extensive documentation comes from an older documentary on Ushio that looks like it was made in the early 1970s. We watch Ushio gather cardboard to create his massive sculptures–Harleys, dinosaurs–and then go to work on his actions paintings, which are done with paint-soaked boxing gloves. It all helps provide context for his place in the art world when he came to the city.
But there’s also the self-documentation that Ushio and Noriko have engaged in over the years. It’s not just the autobiographic Cutie series that Noriko has been working on either. In the living room, in this work space, there are countless photo albums and home videos which provide intimate looks into their lives as a family and as two artists. When Ushio is boxing with a canvas during the opening credits, there’s Noriko snapping photos. Their vast collection of home movies and photographs was logged, sorted, and translated by a small team as part of the making of Cutie and the Boxer.
“More than a hundred hours, right?” Noriko asked.
“Now it’s organized!” Zach laughed.
“Because of you!”
Some of this previous documentation and self-documentation is revelatory. One video in particular shows Ushio among friends getting more and more drunk, and then venting his frustrations about being an acclaimed yet struggling artist. Just sitting across from him, I still a sensed great pride and seriousness about his work. And yet some of the home video footage is revealing simply for being mundane.
“Their trips to Bermuda would just be Ushio filming a plant like for 10 minutes,” Zach laughed. “And then he would find a lizard and film that. And then Noriko you would see occasionally when he would pan, and we’d be like, ‘Oh! A shot of Noriko!’ and maybe something would come out of it.”
Those lingering shots makes sense in a lot of ways. Though Ushio admitted he doesn’t always rewatch the videos since it’s mostly a hobby, he took hours of footage as possible inspiration for his work.
Noriko just popping into frame also makes some sense in the context of the film and their relationship. Noriko had always been in Ushio’s shadow to some degree. Some of that is due to their culture and their age difference (Ushio turned 81 this year, Noriko 60), though some of it was also Ushio’s own pride. My digital recorder unfortunately conked out for a bit so I can’t provide Ushio’s exact words, but I recall him admitting that he was surprised by how prominent a role Noriko had in Cutie and the Boxer. He’d assumed the documentary would mostly be about him.
Cutie and the Boxer is still a movie about Ushio as much as it is about Noriko. Watching the film, I got a sense that it was Noriko who’s kept Ushio going. Without her, it’s hard to say where he’d be. Noriko described artists in a relationship as two flowers sharing the same pot. Ushio may be a flower that needs some form of symbiosis to thrive, though he may be unwilling to admit it. And yet Ushio did say, without reservation, how much he enjoyed the way the documentary showed Noriko come into her own as an artist. He’s genuinely proud of her, and he’s not too proud to admit that.
Ushio and Noriko’s son Alex is a kind of third flower who pops up in the film every now and then. While his role in the film isn’t prominent, his presence in the documentary is still crucial for exploring Ushio and Noriko’s long relationship.
“Alex was one of the so-called ‘SoHo loft kids,'” Ushio said. “He was the son of artists, and there were those kinds of families there back then. He grew up in that kind of community so he had no kind of exposure to the family life of a lawyer, a politician, or a professor, and that sort. He was in a distinct position to become an artist, because that was the only kind of life that he knows and would see.”
“For him, art is easy, but after he graduated, he saw the reality,” Noriko said. “It’s difficult to show your work in a gallery and to sell. It was a different world. So he saw the reality, and he started struggling in life after he graduated. As part of the struggle, he became an alcoholic.” She added, “When Zach was filming us, that was probably the most difficult time for Alex. Now Alex is becoming a serious artist.”
There will be a gallery show for the three artists of the Shinohara family in Japan to coincide with the Japanese release of Cutie and the Boxer. Alex’s new work may be the centerpiece of the show.
“Luckily he inherited Norkio’s and my talent,” Ushio said.
“There could be a separate film just about Alex,” Zach said, “but in this film, we wanted his role to be tied into the sacrifices Ushio and Noriko made to have this sort of artist lifestyle. It can cause a lot of chaos and issues with raising a kid.”
When Alex does appear in the film, he seems a bit withdrawn, which is part of the struggles he was facing at the time. They even address his drinking outright over dinner. There’s also footage of Alex as a kid growing up, and while the circumstances of life in an artist’s home must have been different and possibly more stressful than the life of a suburban kid, it has its many lighter moments.
“There’s actually one particular episode [in junior high],” Ushio began. “Alex was taking a French class and he stopped going. The teacher said, ‘It’s okay, you’re more concentrated in your art, but if you want to pass this class, make a sculpture of a fruit basket. If you do that, I’ll let you pass.’ So then I helped him make the fruit basket. He passed the class.”
This contrast of ups and downs in an artist’s life (and an artists’ child’s life) is one of those key parts of Cutie and the Boxer. It’s a fundamental question about what makes great art.
“There’s always this question in the film: ‘Is it worth it?'” Zach said. “Is what Noriko went through with Ushio worth the art that she has today, or is the lifestyle that they lived worth the work that they’ve produced. It’s important to see all of the aspect; all the scars and the wounds, the highs and the lows.”
That brought me back to the nature of history, which is in one respect a chronicle of cause and effect relationship and the marks that different events leave behind. The New York of the 1960s and 1970s is the idea of New York in most artists’ minds. Over time, more and more transplants (myself included) have come to the city to make it as painters, actors, sculptors, writers, and filmmakers. But despite the starry-eyed romance of everyone new to the city, the New York of the 1970s is gone, and it’s become prohibitively expensive to live in SoHo or even Alphabet City, which in the 70s and 80s was a wasteland of dope fiends, rubble piles, and dead ends. (Really, it’s too expensive to live in New York in general, yet these are the trade-offs for fewer tenement fires and greater safety.)
“Back then, New York was the center of American pop culture and pop art,” Ushio reminisced about the cultural scene of the time. “But now there’s a more international influence.”
“New York is a product of these immigrants coming from all over and doing new and interesting things,” Zach said, himself a young transplant to the city. “Ushio and Norkio were both a part of that in that glory period, and they were living in the part of the city that represents what people think about when you think about the New York art world. It’s the reason people come today.”
Noriko had her own memories of New York in its mythic glory period. “Sometimes we’d sneak out of our SoHo loft [when we still lived there] and go to bars. At that time, many artists–dancers, writers, musicians, artists–were working as waiters or waitresses. Back then, the third drink was always free! We don’t hear this anymore. That’s what I miss.
“In June we went to Italy,” she added. “Milan. And we found some outdoor local bar. I liked it there, so we went back, and the manager was so impressed. Third time we went there, it was free! That’s where I find the old spirit!”
“I think if you go back to SoHo, you can’t find that spirit anymore,” Zach said. “It’s harder and harder to find it. Maybe it’s in Bushwick. Having something then and having something now that retains that spirit is so rare, I think, and it’s one of the things I find so fascinating about both Ushio and Noriko.”
“You can go to Sunnyside in Queens,” Noriko replied. “My friend said that happy hour at a bar is like 35 cents or 50 cents, something like that. In 1975, happy hour was like 35 cents and there was food! Free bar food!”
Ushio began to speak to Noriko in Japanese, and though I couldn’t understand, I think he was asking her for a chance to respond. Noriko smiled and nodded and let Ushio have a turn. I sensed that in this brief exchange was the heart of their relationship, which has held together, a constant, since the early 1970s: they share, sometimes Noriko more than Ushio, but they share.
“Twenty-seven years ago I came to DUMBO, and back then there was no one around here,” Ushio remembered. “But since then, there’s been a lot of changes. I feel lucky that I moved here and got this space.”
Cutie and The Boxer is now playing in limited release.