I have to say, ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ may be the most rewarding film I’ve seen this year, for the simple fact that I had no idea what it was about before seeing it and it moved me in such unexpected ways before it was completed. The finale felt so beautifully appropriate, and the mixture of emotions that is felt from both of the film’s protagonists (can that word still be used within the framework of a documentary?) is truly authentic and poignant.
What makes ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ so effective is the fact that it is not really what it says it is, and in fact pulls off something even more enriching, emotionally so, and becomes a piece of true reflection, not on the primary subject at all but on a deeper and more universal subject.
I’ll try and explain.
‘Cutie and the Boxer’ is a documentary about the work and marriage of two Japanese artists who traveled from their homeland to New York City in the late 60’s. Noriko, from a wealthier family, meets struggling artist Ushio and is drawn to his fearless love of the arts. He thrusts himself into his passions and this is alluring, despite the danger that comes from this careless lack of responsibility. It may be infectious, but it is also damaging. Noriko soon finds herself sacrificing her own ideals and her own passions as an artist when she becomes pregnant and Ushio’s drinking takes over his life. Despite having raw talent, their ambitious, especially those of Ushio, are bigger than his audience and he soon finds that while the general public admires his work, no one wants to buy it.
Fast forward nearly four decades and you have the portrait of a devoted couple who are obviously fraying at the edges. Noriko has stood by her man despite wanted to claw his throat on many occasions, and despite being practically destitute financially, they still hold fast to their art. Their son has suffered immensely for his parent’s mistakes, especially his father’s, and has turned to alcoholism himself. With a showcase looming over the horizon, which offers both Noriko and Ushio a chance for recognition, ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ chronicles their preparation for this gallery opening.
But the focus is NOT on their art.
The beauty of this film is the way that it paints such an honest portrait of marriage. Through Noriko’s animation we are able to see the evolution of their marriage and the struggle that she has gone through, not only as an artist but as a woman. She strives to pick up the pieces of her husband as well as rediscover her own identity while always being relegated to his shadow, which is why the film’s finale is so rewarding. This is Noriko’s story, and as such it is one of female empowerment and the triumphant spirit that entangles and propels many to success. Watching the reactions from both Noriko and Ushio is very touching, because there is nothing held back despite the subtlety in their appearance. This film beautifully captures the remorse, regret, anticipation, depression and validation that comes to those pursuing a life of art, a life of passion. Despite the obvious marital and artistic setbacks, Noriko sums it up best when she expresses that her life of passion has made her better off.
I’d give this film an A, and so far it’s my second favorite documentary of the year. It also happened to make it into Oscar’s short list, so I’m wondering if something this special and this touching could snag a spot that isn’t already promised to ‘The Act of Killing’, ‘Blackfish’, ’20 Feet From Stardom’ or ‘Stories We Tell’. That really only leaves one spot and eleven films vying for it, but this is so good and so sweet that it could sneak in, if enough people see it.