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“It’s not a typical romance,” says Noriko Shinohara, dryly. She’s speaking, in Zachary Heinzerling’ s intimate documentary “Cutie and the Boxer,” about two different yet intertwined relationships: her own, with artist husband Ushio Shinohara, and that between Cutie and Bullie, two characters in a comic-book-style series of paintings and drawings created by Noriko, inspired by her often-difficult relationship with her husband.

Heinzerling takes us inside the Shinoharas’ cluttered Brooklyn loft — it seems encrusted with possessions, like overlapping layers of paint on a canvas — and listen to their usually agreeable squabbling. Theirs is a long relationship, begun nearly 40 years ago: She was 19 and newly arrived in New York from Japan; he was 41, already settled in the city and known as an “action painter” (he dips boxing gloves in paint and attacks a blank sheet of paper). Through the years, he has found acclaim as an artist, with many gallery shows but little money; she’s taken care of him, raised their child, endured his alcoholism — and finally found her own voice as “Cutie.” (Among the stories Cutie tells: that on the morning after her first night with Bullie, he asked to borrow money.) You sense that this is how quiet Noriko finds shelter in the storm of her marriage: by speaking through art.

“Cutie and the Boxer” takes this tale of two artists and tells it with style and wit: Ushio, at work, is filmed like performance art, a boxer dancing with paint; Noriko’s work comes to life through whimsical animation, making New York a wonderland. But the reality is clear: These two have made hard choices for their art and yet survived; you sense they’ll always be together, both on paper and off. Noriko, in the film, wonders aloud if “maybe being opposite helped to accomplish something, in the end.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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