On the surface Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary follows the lives of a Japanese couple settled in New York but a study of a relationship based on artistic passion and talent is also present.
Ushio Shinohara is a famed abstract Japanese artist, both a painter and sculptor he has gained recognition through one of his unique styles of painting: dipping boxing gloves into paint and throwing punches at a blank canvas. His methods bizarre and the final product magnificent, Shinohara is hailed as a modern great in this documentary through archive footage, contemporary galleries and even a four figure sale.
However, the film actually focuses on his younger wife, Noriko or ‘Cutie’, who is also a painter. Heinzerling attempts to portray her role in her husband’s rise to fame, not only this but investigates the couple’s past tribulations and her aspirations on becoming an independent artist like her partner.
Through her own water colour animation we are told Noriko’s story, from the moment she arrived in New York, meeting Ushio and having a child together. Unfortunately though, Ushio had many problems with drinking, becoming volatile and causing a mess, all of which Noriko would have to deal with, whilst of course caring for the child. She describes Ushio as a barrier to her artistic ambition and to have influenced their son to become an alcoholic.
Though he is made to seem like a bad man, Noriko confirms that she saw Ushio as a teacher when it came to art, something she will be forever grateful for. Much like Noriko, we don’t resent Ushio for his drinking, we sympathise with him, in quite a heavy archive scene he breaks down in tears and now we understand that Noriko is there to keep him healthy, keep him sane. Even when dealing with potential buyers Noriko is the voice of reason to neutralise his recklessness.
There are points in the film when we question whether the two are even in love, their relationship seems to be based solely on painting and art – their New York apartment littered with brushes and canvases. But it’s the very definition of love, an emphatic and altruistic companionship in which opposites attract, the famous and the unknown, the brains and the talent, the cutie and the boxer – their differences are what make them compatible. It’s certainly not the glossed Hollywood interpretation of a relationship and this is precisely why it’s a documentary; it’s presenting the real.
Finally, the film itself can be described as a work of art. The composition is tasteful and the score is dreamy and serenading, similar to Arcade Fire’s for ‘Her’. Most importantly, it explains the meaning behind their paintings, the suffering, the love, the hate, shown in the strokes and shades. It’s whole commentary on painting as an art form is that an inspiration always exists behind the canvas.