Cutie and The Boxer is a testament to the creative spirit shown through the marriage of a fascinating and complex couple,  but fails to justify the unappreciated talent that looms over their existence.

For years, Ushio Shinohara has been one of the leading, and most underappreciated, alternative artists in Japan and New York City with an wildly esoteric style. For many of those years, his wife, Noriko, has been a faithful companion to this idiosyncratic man, but grew want to be more. This film covers the relationship of these special couple as Ushio struggles for commercial success on his own terms. Meanwhile, we also follow Noriko pursuing her own artistic vision with her semi-autobiographical line art project that reveals much about her own soul as eloquently as her husband’s work.

Art is the for privileged few who can afford expensive useless things as tokens of a high social status. Much of what a casual observer would see is the air of sophistication laced with pretentiousness. Of course, not everything is all fancy gallery exhibitions with expensive glasses of wine. Cutie and The Boxer highlights what goes behind the scenes, particularly artists who starve to sustain their dreams.

The documentary effectively shows this through Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, consequently drawing a parallel between art and marriage – a constant work in progress that requires stubborn optimism.

The camera stays up close, which provides an intimate look at their relationship. Their threadbare existence is shown as it is capturing a dynamic – typically found in decade long marriages – that veers between love and contempt. Noriko makes half-meant jokes at her husband’s expense. Ushio treats his wife as a lesser artist under his shadow.

The documentary features Noriko’s line art project that gives it a whimsical yet sad look at her marriage. It’s simple execution lets the couple’s story speak for itself, while well placed snippets from the past gives a bit more context.

However, Ushio’s talent, which is the main focus of the film, is not really justified. He’s able to sell his works once in a while (albeit not enough to completely lift them out of poverty) but why is his art considered so avant-garde yet unpalatable in the American market? Is his paint spattered and battered canvases and scrap heap motorcycle sculptures really that weird from shapeless abstract installations?

These questions are not answered. As a result, its not an effective tale of an unappreciated genius, whose critically acclaimed talent looms over his family’s existence. The documentary would have been better structured around them instead. Noriko’s suffering has enabled her to become an independent artist with a style of her own. Her son, despite inheriting his father’s alcoholism, shows signs of artistic talent.

The documentary ends on this note which makes it look like a story that has ended even before it begun. Overall, the documentary is still able to effectively show the unseen sacrifices in the elitist world of high art and the real portrait of starving artists. Above all, it shows a marriage that has withstood against the odds, showing that there can be meaning behind an abstract piece of art, even if you’re not quite sure how its crude elements fit together.

My Rating: 7.5/10

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