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An Ode to Marriage, Part I: Cutie and the Boxer

An Ode to Marriage, Part I: Cutie and the Boxer

Two recent films stand out as paeans to marriage although each is also about art and the passion it arouses. Proust discovered and articulated at the end of his massive Remembrance of Things Past that making one’s own life into a work of art is the highest form of art one can make and in its accomplishment, one makes one’s life a success.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. Shakespeare’s words reflect in these two documentaries about the marriage of true minds.

As Peter and I approach our 25th anniversary (September 9), it seems especially appealing to me to write of these two films, Cutie and the Boxer and Herb and Dorothy 50 X 50 as tributes to marriage. 

As the director of Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling stated, “I hope that audiences will recognize themselves in Ushio and Noriko Shinohara’s story, and consider their own relationships after watching. “ His goal, “to absorb the audience in the raw spirit and beauty that emanates [from his subjects], to open a door onto the creative and very private world where the rhythms of the Shinoharas’ lives play out” is thoroughly accomplished in this documentary. My subsequent conversation with the Shinoharas further convinced me (if I needed further confirmation) of the rocky road to true marriage of the minds…

A reflection on love, sacrifice, and the creative spirit, this candid New York story explores the chaotic 40-year marriage of renowned “boxing” painter Ushio Shinohara and his artist wife, Noriko. As a rowdy, confrontational young artist in Tokyo, Ushio seemed destined for fame, but met with little commercial success after he moved to New York City in 1969, seeking international recognition. When 19-year-old Noriko moved to New York to study art, she fell in love with Ushio—abandoning her education to become the wife and assistant to an unruly, husband. Over the course of their marriage, the roles have shifted. Now 80, Ushio struggles to establish his artistic legacy, while Noriko is at last being recognized for her own art—a series of drawings entitled “Cutie,” depicting her challenging past with Ushio. Spanning four decades, the film is a moving portrait of a couple wrestling with the eternal themes of sacrifice, disappointment and aging, against a background of lives dedicated to art.


Cutie and the Boxer is an intimate, observational documentary chronicling the unique love story between Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, married Japanese artists living in New York. Bound by years of quiet resentment, disappointments and missed professional opportunities, they are locked in a hard, dependent love.

The film begins in Brooklyn, where the couple struggles to manage their creeping poverty. Examining each artist’s complicated history, the film reveals the roots of their relationship. Ushio Shinohara achieved notoriety in postwar Japan for his avant-garde “boxing” paintings, and in 1969 set out for New York City in search of international recognition. Three years later, at age 19, Noriko left Japan to study art in New York and was instantly captivated by the middle-aged Ushio. She abandoned her education and her wealthy family’s support to become the wife of an unruly husband and, a year later, mother of their only son, Alex.

Their 40-year marriage has left Ushio and Noriko in distinct spaces. At 80, Ushio continues to obsessively pursue the painting and sculpture he crafted half a century ago. Coming off a recent, poorly received show in which he sold no work, he’s become increasingly desperate to establish his legacy in the final years of his life. Meanwhile, Noriko, 59, is at last coming into her own. With a renewed passion for art, she throws herself into illustration with her “Cutie” series, which viscerally and humorously depicts her challenging past with Ushio. Through “Cutie”, she channels the unpleasant aspects of her life into a body of paintings and drawings steeped in a colorful explosion of woman power, sensuality, and fantasy that acts as a counterbalance to the reality

Cutie and the Boxer is about the 40 years of a tumultuous marriage in which the dominant partner, the famous boxer painter of Japan and his wife, Noriko, who is now writing a gorgeous illustrated book of their marriage are constantly at odds with one another and yet are so open about their efforts and worries which take place daily as they struggle to make enough money to live.

Cutie and the Boxer, opens TODAY, Friday, August 16 at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in L.A. and at the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinema in N.Y. with a national rollout to follow.

I wonder why press notes are always “anonymous”. Whoever wrote the press notes should receive a credit for I, myself, cannot approach such informed writing about this film. Those of you who want to know more about this wonderful production can read the press notes.  I would like to like to know a lot more, and so I will stay in touch with Noriko Shinohara.

The director Zachary Heinzerling, is also the cinematographer.  It is his first film.  He has worked on several feature-length films for HBO, including three Emmy Award-winning documentaries as a field producer and camera operator. Zachary participated in the 2011 Berlinale Talent Campus. He also was selected as one of 25 filmmakers for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFP’s Emerging Visions Program during the 2011 New York Film Festival. His films have received grants from Cinereach, Tribeca Film Institute, San Francisco Film Society, and the Jerome Foundation. Other cinematography credits include the forthcoming feature documentary Town Hall for PBS.

OUR CONVERSATION: Zachary Heinzerling, Noriko and Ushio Shinohara:

Zachary moved to N.Y. after college and got a job with HBO Historical Documentaries and started making this film evenings and on weekends.  He left HBO finally to edit this film which premiered at Sundance in 2013 and won him the Best Director Award there.

A college friend of his met the Shinoharas in 2007 and introduced him to them. He first made a short about them.  He wants the doc to expose new people to their art; the doc is making the news and getting into festivals.

Noriko tells me that a year ago, a Japanese visitor came and offered $4,500 for one of Ushio Shinohara’s works. He paid 10% down and did not take the work and they never heard from him again. However, after a year he just returned and paid 10% more and took the picture, promising to pay the rest of the $3,400 next week. This was a result of news of the film reaching Japan. And so now she has enough money so that she can go to the dentist.

After Sundance, a non profit organization bought a work of art. After a TV appearance, they sold a medium size picture and a larger one. They hope to receive some participation from the Radius TWC domestic deal and from the international sales agent K5 who has already sold U.K., Australia (Madman) and Japan.

Their joint exhibition which is conceived of during the film has resulted in a sale to the director of the show and a friend of the director. Another friend of 30+ years, a Japanese curator is making a show in Tokyo too.

When I met the Shinoharas, I was struck by their youthful beauty, though he is 80 and she is approaching 60. I thought they must transcend their daily worries through their art and naively suggested it. They said We cannot see, but they have much daily anxiety. His brain is always working about how to do the work. In order to keep his brain clear, he studies classical art, especially at the Metropolitian Museum of Art.

He knows that the most important thing is to stay healthy. She interrupts, “It’s a lie”. When he was drinking (as you see in the movie), it was his body that could no longer drink. He did not exert any will power to get healthy. But he has regained his health and clarity of mind.

He adds that Noriko tells him that he must stay healthy in order to see his success. She says, If he never sells, he at least will always be healthy.

She was an heiress. She grew up healthy but she is not strong. Her work is mental, so she cannot drink. She always exercised, running in Central Park where she ran with the High School National Running Team. She now dances and that helps her keep fit.  She believes, like the Greeks, in a Good Brain, Good Health.

When she paints she literally puts her whole life into the work. Art is life. And now her life is inside her work. In 2007, she designed the autobiography of their marriage as a comic book. She would like to find a publisher and was quick to respond to my question about publishing by asking if I knew a publisher. I replied not really but only wanted to suggest Taschen…since her work looked like it would go well with Taschen. …. She or Zachary said that Taschen had been solicited.

I have a feeling that her work will see the light of day as an art book. I would buy it for an anniversary gift to my own husband. There were many things she said, both in person and in the film, about their marriage which resonated strongly with me and probably would with any woman whose husband has not been henpecked to death by her.

She says she is weak, but I can see she is far from weak and probably gives as much guff to her husband as he must give to her.

Regarding their relationship, she says he does not understand her at all. He explained that 40 years ago they began living together and he thought it would be better to work together. It was not PURE LOVE at the beginning. While living and working together, he realized that their cooperation would be most acceptable to the art world. They shared ideas and mutual friends.

She says that she sacrificed everything to cooperate. He became mad and jealous of her but her true friends are not his true friends.

After 40 years of marriage, Ushio says that he is beginning to understand Noriko and to understand his love for her too by watching and rewatching this documentary Cutie and the Boxer. He admits that he is not objective in dealing with life, but the film gives him a greater understanding of Noriko and he liked her art as he saw it in the film (She works in a very private off-limits place of her own). He watches the film often he says.

Her son, Alex, was also pretty bad off, drinking constantly, but now he is better. He is the best student in the School of Design. Although he has not yet sold his art, he continues with it. The three of them will exhibit in Tokyo this December. Her friend Reiko will curate.

She says that she used to regret, but now knows that she could not have made her art without her past, and that gives her comfort with where she is now.  We left with an embrace and with the shared understanding that we are at a good place today which we could never have reached without having experienced our marriages as we did.

This is the end of Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2, the story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel in the documentary, Herb & Dorothy 50X50, to be released by Fine Line Media September 13th in New York at the IFC Center. The film will then expand with a platform theatrical release to San Francisco on 9/20, Los Angeles on 9/27 and the balance of the top 10 markets throughout October before taking on additional markets nationwide. Developed as the follow-up film to Megumi Sasaki’s award-winning documentary Herb & Dorothy (2008) that moved millions of art-lovers worldwide, Herb & Dorothy 50X50 captures the last chapter of the Vogel’s extraordinary life and their gift to the nation, raising various questions on art, and what it takes to support art in today’s society. Another ode to the marriage of true minds.

CREDITS – With credits like these, how can Cutie and the Boxer not be great?

Lydia Dean Pilcher (Producer) of Cine Mosaic has produced over 30 feature films, most recently the upcoming release of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on the acclaimed novel by Mohsin Hamid, directed by Mira Nair, starring Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schrieber and Kiefer Sutherland, premiering at TIFF 2012. She is presently in post-production on the feature films The Sisterhood of Night and The Lunchbox, and is headed to production this year with Fela – Music is the Weapon with director Steve McQueen. Lydia’s other producing credits include HBO Films’s You Don’t Know Jack, with Al Pacino, directed by Barry Levinson; The Darjeeling Limited, directed by Wes Anderson; and now ten films directed by Mira Nair including The Namesake, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. She is the founder and president of Cine Mosaic, a production company based in New York.

Patrick Burns (Producer) is a journalist and photographer based in New York. He began studying Japanese art and culture while living in Japan, where he became conversant in the language. As a reporter in the New York bureau of the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, he covered political and cultural events in the U.S. and Latin America. Patrick’s writing and photographs have appeared in several online and print publications such as the Huffington Post, the Guardian and National Geographic.

Sierra Pettengill (Producer) has worked on many documentary films, including as Associate Producer on the Peabody Award-winning Triangle Fire and the Emmy-nominated Walt Whitman for PBS. She was also the Associate Producer of HBO’s Wartorn: 1861 – 2010. She is currently directing Town Hall, a co-production with ITVS, and is the Archival Producer on Matt Wolf’s Teenage.

Kiki Miyake (Executive Producer) is the founder and president of Little Magic Films, an independent film company that stands at the cross roads of East and West, developing and arranging international co-productions. She is currently producing Angry Little God, a psychological thriller directed by Daniel Stamm (The Last Exorcism). Now in post-production, the film will be distributed by Dimension. Later in 2013, Kiki is scheduled to start production on Adele’s Secret, the remarkable true story of Maria Altman’s struggle to reclaim five famous Gustav Klimt paintings, stolen from her family by the Nazis. Earlier in her career, Kiki spearheaded acquisitions for the Japanese distributor Amuse Pictures, later Toshiba Entertainment. Pre-buying films still in the script stage, she succeeded at acquiring over 50 titles, including the Academy Award and Palme d’Or winners The Pianist, Memento, Pulp Fiction, Once and Finding Neverland, as well as major commercial blockbusters such as Resident Evil. Kiki’s previous production credits include Jonas Akerland’s Spun, Julien Temple’s Vigo, David Byrne’s Ile Aiye, and TheMagnum Eye, a series of 18 video diaries directed by Magnum Photo Agency’s renowned photo-journalists.

David Teague (Editor) is a film editor whose work includes Oscar-winning, Oscar-nominated, and Emmy-nominated documentaries. He edited Cynthia Wade’s 2008 Academy Award-winning short documentary Freeheld. He also edited Jennifer Redfearn’s Sun Come Up, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010. David edited and was a cinematographer on two other documentaries for Cynthia Wade: Mondays at Racine and Born Sweet (Sundance 2010). He recently completed the feature documentary The Iran Job, which had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and he directed and edited his own award-winning documentary, Intifada NYC, which is currently playing festivals and broadcast outlets internationally. His documentary directing work also includes Our House, co-directed with Greg King, which premiered at Hot Docs 2010 and is playing currently on the Documentary Channel.

Yasuaki Shimizu (Composer) is a composer, saxophonist and producer whose musical explorations range from classical to free improvisation. Renowned for his groundbreaking interpretations of J.S.Bach, Shimizu also collaborates on video, multimedia and dance projects, and scores music for television, commercials and film. His career took off in the 1970s as his saxophone playing gained notice. Since 1981 he has composed, produced or arranged for artists as diverse as jazz vocalist Helen Merril, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and DJ Towa Tei. In 1983 he launched the project Yasuaki Shimizu & Saxophonettes, which has since become the focus of his recording activities. From 1985 through 1991 he based himself in Paris and London, recording three albums with a host of international artists. His acclaimed Bach recordings—Cello Suites 1.2.3 (1996) and Cello Suites 4.5.6 (1999)—marked the first-ever rendition for tenor saxophone of the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, and in 1997 he released the Japan Record Award- winning album Bach Box. In 2006 he relaunched the Saxophonettes as a saxophone quintet. Their latest album, Pentatonica (2007), is a collection of profoundly original compositions based on the pentatonic scale. In February 2010, Shimizu reaffirmed his passion for Bach by premiering in Tokyo the world’s first saxophone/double bass arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

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