Ushio Shinohara creates a “boxing” painting in “Cutie and the Boxer,” opening Friday at the Nuart in L.A. (Images courtesy Radius-TWC)

Perhaps the most telling passage of “Cutie and the Boxer” is when an 80-year-old painter asks his wife, Noriko, if she hates Bullie – a name she uses to refer to her husband.

“No,” Noriko answers. “Cutie loves Bullie so much!”

“Cutie and the Boxer” is an intimate, observational documentary chronicling the unique love story between Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, married Japanese artists living in New York. Bound by years of quiet resentment, disappointments and missed professional opportunities, they are locked in a hard, dependent love.

The film begins in Brooklyn, where the couple struggles to manage their creeping poverty. Examining each artist’s complicated history, the film reveals the roots of their relationship.

Ushio Shinohara achieved notoriety in postwar Japan for his avant-garde “boxing” paintings, and in 1969 set out for New York City in search of international recognition. Three years later, at age 19, Noriko left Japan to study art in New York and was instantly captivated by the middle-aged Ushio. She abandoned her education and her wealthy family’s support to become the wife of an unruly husband and, a year later, mother of their only son, Alex.

Their 40-year marriage has left Ushio and Noriko in distinct spaces. At 80, Ushio continues to obsessively pursue the painting and sculpture he crafted half a century ago. Coming off a recent, poorly reviewed show in which he sold no work, he’s become increasingly desperate to establish his legacy in the final years of his life.

Noriko, 59, is at last coming into her own. With a renewed passion for art, she throws herself into illustration with her “Cutie” series, which viscerally and humorously depicts her challenging past with Ushio. Through “Cutie,” she channels the unpleasant aspects of her life into a body of paintings and drawings steeped in a colorful explosion of woman power, sensuality, and fantasy that acts as a counterbalance to the reality of Ushio.

The film leads to a joint exhibition offered to both artists, providing Noriko with a long-awaited opportunity to show her new work to the public. The two work — together and apart — to prepare for the installation.

Through present-day vérité scenes, archival footage and animated sequences of Noriko’s drawings, the documentary brings us to understand that the stark differences in the Shinoharas’ art and personalities are the basis for a deep and challenging symbiosis, one rooted in a vital creative spirit.

At its core, “Cutie and the Boxer” is a film that reveals painful universal truths about the life of the artist and how the creative process intersects with reality, identity and marriage.

Director Zachary Heinzerling wrote in the film notes that he was immediately struck after seeing a photo of the couple.

“I knew something special was there; something that became clear immediately upon meeting them in person … They live in a space that acts as a shrine to their storied existence: floors coated with years of old paint, drawings stacked on top of paintings on top of books, photos tacked to the walls hinting at past fame. I was immediately engrossed in their colorful world, where the lines between art and life were completely blurred.”

“Cutie and the Boxer” will open Friday, Aug. 16, at the Nuart in Los Angeles

and at the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinema in New York with a national roll-out to follow.

The Nuart is located at 11272 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Los Angeles. Call (310) 473-8530 or visit for showtimes and ticket information.

On Friday, Aug. 23, the film will open at the following California theaters:

Ken Cinema, 4061 Adams Ave., San Diego; (619) 283-3227;

Opera Plaza Cinema, 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; (415) 771-0183;

Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; (510) 644-2992;

For more information on the film, visit or (in Japanese).

Ushio and Noriko Shinohara have been married for 40 years.

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