Japanese couple’s canvas alive with the art of love

by Kaori Shoji

Special to The Japan Times

Being an artist can be hard enough — but being part of an artist couple comes with a truckload of angst, as director Zachary Heinzerling demonstrates in his debut documentary feature “Cutie and the Boxer.” This is about the life and times of artists Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, who have been a Brooklyn fixture for the past 40 years.

“For a long time Ushio didn’t look upon his wife as a fellow artist,” Heinzerling tells The Japan Times. “In the traditional Japanese way, and typical of his generation, Ushio saw and treated Noriko as a helpmate and assistant.

“It was when people became interested in Noriko and her work that he woke up to her talent as an artist. And that made him a little jealous. At the same time, I don’t think he was entirely convinced of her abilities. They have a complicated relationship.”

Commercial success had always eluded Ushio Shinohara, both in his native Japan, where he gained recognition as an avant-garde artist without being able to bank on it, and in New York, where he went (on a Rockefeller grant) in 1969 and where he has lived ever since. Then in 1972 a young art student fresh out of Japan came over to his Brooklyn digs for a chat. Noriko was 19 years old and Ushio apparently wasted no time in seducing her, then getting her to move in. Noriko missed classes for a week, and her school canceled her visa.

It was a rocky union from the start, and in the movie Noriko says that “it’s a miracle” she stuck around for so long. If she could start over, she adds, “I would marry someone with a stable income, with a little more kindness and who would love our child.” Ushio deadpans that art has made him a demon. “The wife, the kid — all that fades into the background,” is Ushio’s take on marriage.

Most women would have cut and run, but Noriko stayed and turned her life into a series of drawings titled “Cutie and Bullie.” Guess who’s the bully.

“I wanted to tell their story through Noriko’s drawings,” says Heinzerling. “There’s something so poignant and personal about Noriko’s work, and it serves as a good narrative.”

In the movie, Cutie and Bullie do little jumps and jiggles on her sketch pad (courtesy of Heizerling’s editing), but they’re curiously devoid of expression. Sometimes Cutie weeps, but even then she could be smiling, or even smirking, at her own predicament.

Heizerling spent five years making the film — and a good chunk of that time was spent at the Shinoharas’ dilapidated Brooklyn loft.

“Initially, the movie was a lot of talking heads,” he says. “And I would sit the Shinoharas in front of the camera and ask them questions and they would give typical answers. Like I would ask, ‘What made you two stay together?’ And they would say, ‘One rent is easier than two.’ That sort of thing.

“But then I started filming their life together. Eating together, Noriko standing at the sink, their son coming over, things like that. And these cinéma vérité scenes turned out to be so much more interesting than the interviews. So I started the process of really trying to capture the moments between them. Things like a sigh, or a look. These reactions were much more indicative of how they felt about each other.”

Heinzerling studied Japanese art in college, which spawned a fascination with the films of Yasujiro Ozu. “I learned about the workings of Japan’s male-dominated society from watching Ozu,” he says. “Though Japan has a very reserved and polite culture, that same culture makes no attempt to hide its discrimination against women. For men of Ushio’s generation, it was an accepted thing and very common for women to suffer abuse. I don’t think they really even thought about it. And Ushio … Well, he’s been in the U.S. for so long but that hasn’t changed the fact that he’s Japanese.

“Same with Noriko. She’s 21 years younger than her husband and she comes from a family liberal enough to send her to New York to study art, right? But she’s a Japanese woman. I felt that very strongly. So instead of trying to find the American in Ushio and Noriko, I tried to highlight their Japanese-ness. I wanted to make the American viewer a spectator in their home.”

Having said that, Heinzerling says he was well aware of the strangeness of Ushio and Noriko’s union, and how sad it could seem to a Western audience.

“They do need each other, and I have to say that the reasons are mostly financial. Ushio needs Noriko more than she does him. She manages their money and runs the household. Left to his own devices, Ushio wouldn’t be able to concentrate on his art — and to him, art is everything.”

In the movie, Noriko says jokingly that Ushio must value her because she cooks for him and can read the subway map. And it’s true that these wifely qualities are important to Ushio who, after nearly half a century in Brooklyn, still has trouble getting around. But something else is definitely there, and some scenes fairly hum with the couple’s unspoken emotions.

“Conflict can breed love,” says Heinzerling. “I think conflict is actually what has kept the Shinoharas together. The funny thing is, Ushio is secretly insecure when it comes to Noriko. He was never quite sure about her. It took this movie to let him see that she loves him.”

He didn’t know? That is so Japanese.