The Shinoharas’ relationship is a curious one. Ushio, 80, and Noriko, 59, certainly lend full-fledged credence to the maxim “opposites attract.” While Ushio is showy, Noriko is observant; while he flaunts, she’s reserved; his youthful vibrancy and unbridled energy are a stark contrast to her quiet, gracious nature. However, besides their identity as Japanese expats they do have one important thing in common: their passion for art.

The Brooklyn, New York residents are the subjects of Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary Cutie and the Boxer, a film that explores the duo’s art and, more importantly, the relationship that Ushio and Noriko have forged over the course of a 40-year marriage. Although a celebrated artist well-known for his “boxing” paintings and action art, Ushio’s career has long since fizzled out. As he struggles to revive his career, Noriko, who has been a de facto manager and assistant to Ushio over the years, starts to realize her full artistic potential. As their history together is uncovered bit by bit, we see that it hasn’t been nearly as unburdened and carefree as Ushio’s extroverted, fun-loving personality would have us believe.

In his first feature documentary, Heinzerling executes to a tee, utilizing present-day footage — amassed over a five-year relationship with the Shinoharas — home videos and some of Noriko’s illustrations from her Cutie series to tell the story of these wholly captivating characters. GALO caught up with the film freshman one fine evening via phone to discuss his recent endeavor, his take on Ushio and Noriko’s bond and his plans for an undoubtedly bright future in the industry.

Editorial note: Portions of the interview have been edited and shortened.

GALO: How did the idea for Cutie and the Boxer originate? Did the Shinoharas come to mind immediately as the subjects of your film?

Zachary Heinzerling: I didn’t know who they were prior to meeting them. I was looking for a good documentary subject and they were attractive for a number of reasons. They’re really beautiful people and they’re very charismatic and funny, and exotic for me as well. I had started the project right out of college and had this idea that a lot of New York’s cultural history is tied into the SoHo art scene, and had this romantic idea of what an artist was in New York. The Shinoharas still have that today and it’s pretty rare. In some ways, they’re the last of a dying breed, this lifestyle where it’s art at all costs and living in a loft that’s falling apart. They somehow maintain this relationship with their landlord that’s precarious, but they live a precarious life and it just seemed when I went in there that it was a time warp for me. It was fascinating, there was just a lot there and a lot to try to understand and so much I didn’t understand. With my background being completely different, the fact that they were exotic was what first attracted them to me and it never got old.

As far as the film, once I saw Noriko’s art, her Cutie comics, I thought this could be more like a feature. Just based on Ushio’s art and Noriko’s art, there was a lot of narrative build. But with this Cutie comic, you have this fairytale love story with Noriko recreating her past in a twisted way. The mood of the comic book was whimsical, playful and funny but it had this element of creeping sadness and resentment. That was the mood I wanted to create in the film. A lot of the time it feels very happy-go-lucky, but it’s a pretty sad story.

GALO: Is that why you decided to use her story more as the driver of the film’s narrative arc, because it has all those emotions built into it?

ZH: Ushio’s character is pretty flat; he’s pretty much been the same character. Noriko says there’s one proverb in Japanese [that goes], “The soul of a three-year-old lives a hundred years.” I interviewed Ushio endlessly but it never felt like I was getting beyond his performance in a way, and I’m not sure anybody does. There’s certainly a lot to him, but it wasn’t as mysterious. With Noriko there were linears to unravel and this intense past to bring in, but also this change, this shift in the dynamics of their relationship and this desire to stand up as an artist and fight back and level the playing field. These things were present in all of their interactions and had this momentum I thought could carry a narrative. And then I could structure the film to start with her as the “assistant” and build to the show [at the end of the film].

GALO: Was it hard to get Noriko especially, as well as Ushio, to open up to you and let you document their lives?

ZH: It wasn’t hard for them to let me film. They’re really used to being filmed — Ushio loves the camera and prefers to be watched when he’s doing his painting. It gives him more energy; he’s all about being watched because his performance and the action are the art for him, even more so than the final product.

As far as this kind of story, less about art and more about this relationship, that took time. At the beginning they were always wondering why I was coming over. As the years went on, they just stopped asking, and it was because I would film everything. Everything had equal importance in some ways. Noriko called me a “rice-cooker,” because I became an everyday object like a tea kettle. I was just around so they stopped thinking about it. A lot of the private moments that come out are because I was there when a situation brought things out. For instance, the son’s alcoholism — I was there so often that I saw a lot of that. Also, the show that they had really brought out a lot of conversations that they wouldn’t otherwise have had; you could tell, the title of the show and Ushio having to deal with Noriko having a space at all…

GALO: Because she had a separate art space from him?

ZH: He has a studio across the street and her studio is in the same space as their living space. She had her own room at the art show, and that was the first time that ever happened, so he was forced to react to it and in that reaction you could see more truth and how he really feels about things. I was there to observe, rather than yank things. They don’t necessarily show you much, but they don’t necessarily show each other much either; even if the camera weren’t there, there’s not necessarily all this drama or romance.

(Interview continued on next page)