AA Visual Culture: Cutie and the Boxer

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Asian American Visual Culture


Cutie and the Boxer is a famed documentary following two Japanese artists who reside in New York. Ushio Shinohara is known as “the most famous poor artist”, rising to fame in the 1960s for his take on American pop art and Japanese movement. The film’s star is his wife, Noriko, who comes into her own as an artist and a person throughout the film, culminating in their joint exhibition, Love is Roar-r-r-r! in which she seems to outshine her more famous husband.


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Shattered archtypes: AA woman as caregiver to AA man’s warrior

The elements of Asian American visual culture and the rhetoric of academic studies are present, although more nuanced than the overt sociopolitical message of Shattered. Cutie comes to the United States and is immediately entranced by Bullie, a charming artist 19 years her senior who ends up draining her financially and emotionally. It is autobiographical, but in a case of art determining life, Cutie breaks free from her lover/oppressor Bullie, learning to tame, then control him. (“In real life, he is not as easy to control,” says Noriko) Similar to the way Asian Americans characters in graphic novels come to terms with themselves after grappling to find their identity, the successful development of Cutie from free-form comic to gallery exhibit, is cathartic for Noriko.

At the beginning of the film, Ushio declares that the average one must support the genius, and images of Cutie superimpose the narrative of the Shinohara’s life together. Noriko, who intended to temporarily train under Ushio and eventually become her own artist, has instead spent most of her life as a “free chef, secretary and assistant” for Ushio, an alcoholic eager to consume all that the life of excess that defined American artists at the time. By the end of the film, he seems deflated, somehow weakened by his wife’s success, while Cutie/Noriko thrives in the spotlight.

In terms of Asian American archetypes in graphic novels, Ushio is the brute warrior; we watch him create a series of paintings using sponges tied to boxing gloves, imposing blotches of paint with quick, forceful punches. Noriko begins as a docile, subservient housewife, but ends up like the lotus flowers who use their powers to dominate the men around them.

Cutie is drawn naked, because she is poor, as Noriko explains at the beginning of the film. By the end of the film, Ushio seems deflated, somehow weakened by his wife’s success, while Cutie/Noriko thrives in the spotlight. During the gallery show, Cutie’s portraiture has transformed as well. Her normally blank white body is rosy pink, and Bullie is shown on his back with red heels in his mouth: full frontal domination.

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“Hi I’m Cutie! … I’m always naked, because I’m poor.”

Also of note is Ushio’s passion for American culture, shown in his work and through old, home movie video footage of him drunkenly laughing, crying, and hobnobbing. At one point, a representative from Guggenheim declares that the painting he made is a poppy field. “Poppy field? …Afghan.” Ushio adds, chuckling. It was a quick exchange, not dwelled on, but what struck me was all the subtext.

"Afghan Poppy Field"
“Afghan Poppy Field”
In that moment, the subservience of minorities to whites was present on so multiple levels. First, her declaration of what the painting depicted minutes after it had been finished represents the innate dominance of white privilege. Ushio’s immediate agreement shows the  economic hierarchy that determines power in relationships.
She, a busy curator representing an esteemed foundation, did not have the time to let Ushio express what the work meant to him, what he saw. I don’t really blame her: he has the spluttered coherence of someone who has lost cognitive ability due to alcoholism (he is sober now), which is made more difficult by the language barrier.

I mean, it worked. The painting’s color palate evokes Andy Warhol’s flowers, while the black punches have a permanent violent presence. The immediate association, for me anyway, is the current U.S. occupation of the middle-eastern country. But the painting had now taken on the context of the white Anglo Saxon curator’s personal associations; it’s “meaning” is fabricated, dis-ingenuine. Once again the minority story has been superimposed by the white agenda. She hurriedly leaves, after listening to Noriko timidly explain that her first choice work, a  minimalist black and white painting, was not in the Shinohara’s possession, gifted to a friend by a drunken Ushio. Right, well, we have to make sure they are taken care of. I have to head out. Lovely to see you. In the end, the Guggenheim chooses to spotlight another Japanese American artist.

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