“Art is a demon, a demon that drags along. It’s not something you can stop, even if you should. Maybe you go insane, maybe your wife leaves you or your kid runs away. You throw yourself away to be an artist.” – Ushio Shinohara
For Ushio Shinohara, one of the subjects of the 2013 documentary Cutie and The Boxer, art is more than a passion: it is a dire fight. Figuratively, yes. But also literally. He makes his signature pieces by strapping sponges to boxing gloves and aggressively attacking the canvas. The finished product is captivating and reflects the violence of its making, but watching Ushio making it is a visceral performance art in itself. The tiny self up against the vast and awful and sparkling world, fighting for a piece of it. Wanting to snatch the marrow out of it, wanting to eviscerate the disappointments of it. Wanting to be rewarded for the fight. Punching at the demon at his heels, and making it stronger all the while. Ushio kind of likes his demons. We all do to an extent.
His wife also likes her demons, and one of her demons happens to be him. 80-year-old Ushio Shinohara met his wife Noriko about 40 years ago when she was just 19. She was naive and dazzled by Ushio, who had made an international name for himself. His bohemian lifestyle was entrancing then, but he could never quite turn all his buzz and press into a decent living. 40 years later the glitter has worn off for Noriko. “When I was young I was obsessed by my ideals and art was my first priority. Art was Ushio’s first priority. When it came to that, we completely agreed,” Noriko says. “I was so filled with inspiration. I was never worried about the future.”
Now she’s in the future she never worried about, and it sucks. She gave up her own art for many years, and regrets not marrying a man in a better financial situation. She’s resentful of having cooked, cleaned, and mothered both Ushio, and their now alcoholic son Alex. She’s extremely vocal about her difficult life, and she also funnels these frustrations into her own work: an illustrated narrative about characters called Cutie and Bullie. Cutie, like Noriko, wears her hair in pig tails, and Bullie, like Ushio’s former self, is a menacing figure with bushy, wild hair. He is a self-pitying drunkard. He has terrorized her life (and she has let him) with poverty and a lack of responsibility, and she she fights back with a frank meanness. “I’m not doing anything wrong! Everything I do is for art’s sake.” Bullie says as he runs away from an enraged Cutie.
Bullie is depicted in Noriko’s work calling his friends over to drink and eat, and ending nights completely smashed, dancing on tables, while Cutie cleans up the mess. But the consequences of Ushio’s drinking go beyond too much money spent on booze, putting more work on Noriko’s shoulders, and the regretful inactivity of hangovers: when a lady from the Guggenheim museum comes over with an interest in purchasing one of Ushio’s large works, Noriko is forced to reveal to her that Ushio drunkenly gave away the painting she is interested in buying. Maybe art wasn’t always first, maybe too often the party won out.
Sprinkled throughout this documentary is footage of an earlier documentary shot of the couple several decades ago, and it includes scenes from their revelry. We get to see Ushio in full flush of his life, his drunk man’s heart gushing forth poetically:
“Life is wonderful. Life should be positive. When it’s blown to pieces, that’s when it becomes art. Art is messy and dirty when it pours out of you . . It makes me cry! I have nothing. Listen to me! This is so hard. And it’s so fantastic. Now I’ve got nothing. We are the ones suffering the most from art.”
— Ushio Shinohara
“I spent a lot of time on this meal and the way you gobble it up is so gross. That’s why I hate eating together,” Noriko says in one of several meal time scenes. “I made it so pretty and you quickly make a big mess.” It is a scene they seem to have played out over and over, and it often turns into jokes and playful teasing. When their discussion turns to Spielberg movies, Noriko needles at Ushio in a deeper way than condemning stray cake on his face. “You always say the first work is the best . . . So if that’s the case, there is no hope. Why continue?”
The question burns throughout the documentary. Every attempt at art of excellence a human makes has a whiff of fear and futility surrounding it. What if the best work is already done? What if nothing I do will be any good? What if it is good, but no one will see it? The truth is it’s these questions themselves that are futile, not our work, not our striving, not our yearning. Giving up is where the emptiness truly lies. Why ignore the demon when you can dance with it?
“We are like two flowers in one pot. It’s difficult. Sometimes we don’t get enough nutrients for both of us. But when everything goes well, we become two beautiful flowers. So it’s either heaven or hell.” – Noriko Shinohara
Cutie and the Boxer, directed by Zachary Heinzerling, is available to watch right now on Netflix and to rent or purchase at Amazon. The enchanting score is by Yasuaki Shimizu.