Ushio and Noriko Shinohara in Zachary Heinzerling's film "Cutie and the Boxer"

Interview: Zachary Heinzerling, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara on Duking It Out In “Cutie and the Boxer”

Along with the standing ovations and accolades that “Cutie and the Boxer” has received since premiering at Sundance in January where its director Zachary Heinzerling took home a directing prize, Ushio Shinohara has gotten to enjoy something else about being on the road with the film.

“[At home] in New York, we don’t really eat meat that much,” says Shinohara, one of the film’s main subjects. “Now that we are traveling, I even eat meat in the morning.”

“But you make hamburger all the time!” protests his wife Noriko, sitting only inches away. Her argument is fortified by indisputable video evidence from one of the film’s most amusing scenes where Shiro invents a burger where a beef patty is studded with huge chunks of celery – a concoction that only makes sense within the context of everything else the pair does as artists whose sole goal in life it seems is to create, whether it’s Shiro’s sculptures, Noriko’s paintings or the endless quarrels they each seem to relish.

With Ushio dressed in a neon track suit and Noriko wearing her hair in pigtails on this day in Los Angeles, their grey hair is the only reminder of their true age as the 80-year-old Ushio playfully fiddles with the tablecloth in front of him or the 59-year-old Noriko is apt to mime an explosion to get the attention of Heinzerling, who sits between the two of them, during the interview.

Such energy is part of what makes Heinzerling’s portrait of the duo special, as does the fact that they’ve been able to sustain it for over 40 years. Drawn from Japan to New York by the pop art movement of the late 1960s, Noriko and Ushio, a man twenty years her senior, have been grinding it out in the Big Apple ever since where the latter’s “boxing paintings,” which are created with a Jackson Pollock-esque physical routine of literally punching the canvas, garnered attention, but not nearly enough to make an easy life for the two.

Yet “Cutie and the Boxer” captures Ushio and Noriko at a critical juncture, as Noriko begins to come into her own as an artist with the creation of Cutie, a bubbly cartoonification of her id that is able to reflect in the pages of a comic years of personal joys and frustrations in her life with Ushio, which leads to a joint exhibition with Ushio. While the colorful couple can be counted on provide their own sparks, Heinzerling vividly illuminates how Ushio and Noriko have endured financial hardship, Ushio’s alcoholism and far different creative temperaments to forge something meaningful in their work and in their life. Though sitting still was an issue, the three sat down to talk about how the film came together, handing over some of their most personal videos for public consumption and what the film means for the future of the artists.

Zachary Heinzerling films Ushio Shinohara in a scene from "Cutie and the Boxer"How this did come about?

Zachery Heinzerling: I was introduced to the Shinoharas by a friend Patrick Burns in 2008 and he had met them a year earlier. I thought they would be great subjects for a short documentary, so we shot one afternoon and made a day-in-the-life film that was maybe eight minutes long and showed it to some friends and to the Shinoharas and there was interest, so then we went back about a year later and started filming to do a longer treatment on the subjects.

Ushio and Noriko, what led you to open up your home to these filmmakers?

Noriko Shinohara: We are used to the visitors, so we didn’t think anything about inviting them. But actually, I never imagined it’s going to take such a long time. Usually, TV companies or filmmakers filmed us [for] four days. Once we were invited to Peru to make a program, it was like three weeks, so I said, he’s going to finish the film in a few days. [laughs] It took many years.

Ushio Shinohara: I never actually realized it was going to be that and I just continued my life without concern about how the film was going to turn out. But when they filmed the boxing painting scene [which serves as the film’s climax], it really encouraged me to be excited.

Noriko, it was interesting to hear that you first created the Cutie character in 2006 – were you protective of it, considering Zach began filming not too long after in 2008?

Noriko Shinohara: No, because I already showed my works. When I was painting, people came to see it and the work is work. I don’t have to protect it. It’s good for the artist the more people see it, but the way I first showed Zach and Patrick [was] to let them understand Ushio’s character more. After Zach came back, he filmed Cutie. And he came back with a little part of animation he did with computer graphics [designer] and I was surprised and impressed because animation is my dream. I didn’t think I could do it because it cost a lot of time and money. But he did it with one specialist, so he gave me the dream to make a full, entire animated film. I didn’t need to protect my Cutie and it took a long time, but [Zachary] became one of our family.

Noriko Shinohara in a scene from Zachary Heinzerling's "Cutie and the Boxer"How did the animation come about as the best way to tell some of this story?

Zachary Heinzerling: I always had the idea if we had the means to do it, it would be a really interesting way to present Noriko’s work. We started doing the animation after we started editing the film and the film had really taken the shape of this sort of fairy tale, told slightly more from the perspective of Noriko, so I wanted this seamless transition between the present life and that transition of entering Noriko’s head space and seeing the past through her eyes. So the animation has a few different purposes. It’s both to show the artwork, but also to act almost as archival footage to [show] how Noriko has constructed her past.

It was also surprising to hear you say that you didn’t find all that revelatory Hi-8 footage that shows Ushio at his most vulnerable until the middle of the edit. How did that shape the film?

Zachary Heinzerling: Each time I would go [to the Shinoharas’ apartment], I would just collect more and more tapes and photographs. They would find things and I would ask for things and it was just like I was accumulating their documented history. One of the tapes I had seen a piece of [was] this home video/documentary that Ushio and a friend put together, comprised of this Hi-8, very intimate material. A lot of it was shot at parties that they had and it was kind of unlike anything else I had seen. Most of the other archival was done from news stations that did a more cursory portrayal examination of [Ushio] and his art. This just seemed to be more personal than any of the other footage, so I just asked Ushio and Noriko [if I could use it] and they contacted the friend, [who] preserved all of the original tapes from this period of time. Within that footage, we found all of these moments.

It was always really hard to get past Ushio’s performance. He’s kind of eternally acting both in front of the camera and in life and it was hard to see the core and to really understand his vulnerabilities. That footage provided an unfiltered view of a slightly more vulnerable side and a side that maybe had fewer inhibitions, so it was very, very important. Also, the material of them filming each other on vacations – there was no one else there, so it’s as personal as it can be and shows this softer, more innocent romance that was.

Ushio Shinohara in a scene from Zachary Heinzerling's documentary "Cutie and the Boxer"Were the both of you comfortable with handing over such footage?

Noriko Shinohara: Only the bad part comes from him. [laughs] I didn’t care.

Ushio Shinohara: When I first saw the film, there was some footage I wasn’t aware of being used, so I was actually shocked. Then [there are] all these beautiful scenes from the park with the cherry blossoms, so I’m really pleased with it. This film, I believe, is successful because of the editing ability of Zach’s. I’ve seen this movie over and over and over and after a while, I feel like I’m watching Ushio, not myself, but somebody else.

The film follows Ushio into the shower at one point, so was there anything off-limits?

Ushio Shinohara: I’m so used to going to the pool at the YMCA where everybody is naked and talking in the locker room, so I felt pretty natural.

Noriko Shinohara: You said you like the crying scene best? [Where after a night of heavy drinking, Ushio collapses into the arms of a friend]

Ushio Shinohara: Yes, that’s the best scene because…

Noriko Shinohara: The crying scene because he’s overwhelmed.

Ushio Shinohara: I don’t think there’s anything like that in Hollywood films, where I naturally wiped off my tears with my friend’s shirt. But actually it happens all the time in Japan at the art universities.

Noriko Shinohara: Drug parties! [laughs]

It was interesting to hear that Zachary spent five years making this, but only really used footage from the last year of that. Was that that something you realized in editing this or did you actually know at a certain time this is when your story would unfold?

Zachary Heinzerling: We had interviewed them ad nauseum and it wasn’t that anything was off-limits, but it was just whether [or not] you could really see their characters through asking questions. In the last year, we had reached a level of comfort where they weren’t as worried about what I was shooting, so being there when these situations [such as the art exhibit opening occurred and] to witness Ushio’s reaction to it and Noriko’s reaction to it, you could see some of the truths that weren’t coming out in the interview process.

Ushio and Noriko, when he was interviewing you both, did it cause you to think about things that you hadn’t thought about before?

Noriko Shinohara: In the beginning, I didn’t enjoy the interview [process] because I didn’t see what he was running and maybe I believed he needed to understand us deeper. So it took two years. We are open, but… [pointing to Ushio], he’s always open. But [Zachary] needed to grow up so much. His ideas and his questions became better [over time], so I could think [about] the questions and answer  [them in] better ways. So it took time — not only [with] questions, but he became a better filmmaker I believe.

Ushio Shinohara: In my case, I feel like all the questions that I would reply to Zach actually changed every day because every moment I am changing.

Ushio and Noriko Shinohara in "Cutie and the Boxer"Has there been more interest in your work since the film premiered at Sundance? You’ve said there’s going to be an exhibit in Japan to coincide with the release of the film there in December.

Ushio Shinohara: From the audience of the films wherever I go, I really am getting more energy and appeal of what kind of style and design I’m going to do for my future artwork.

Noriko Shinohara: Yeah, I have to develop Cutie and Bullie even more. Last night, I said, I’m going to make one more book and I want to make a bigger animation, but simple like a classic silent film.

Ushio Shinohara: I’m expecting lots of changes, not only for the artwork, but also my life and I am very excited about it.

Zachary, Noriko’s spoken so eloquently about how this has changed you as an artist – do you feel that’s the case?

Zachary Heinzerling: Yes, for sure. This is a pretty formative experience. Being around this [looking at Noriko and Ushio] rubs off on you — this art-at-all-costs mentality. We were always in process with something. They were created, I was creating and there was always a sense of desperation and a sense of finishing and never a sense of complacency. But there were so many themes with this story. There was the art, there was the history, there was New York as a character and then [seeing Ushio and Noriko in] the more everyday life and in their relationship and I was drawn to certain things, which makes me think more about the palette I would bring to future projects. But it’s two-fold. It’s the dedication to the craft and the experience of being around them and the inspiration and then also determining what I want to say as an artist.

“Cutie and the Boxer” is now open in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theater and in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

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