The words “disabled wrestling” are bound to raise a few eyebrows and a lot of questions. So when Doglegs made the limelight at HotDocs last year, showcasing Tokyo’s underground wrestling league for the mentally and physically disabled, it got people talking. Doglegs provides an insight into the lives of those living with a number of handicaps in Tokyo, from cerebral palsy to depression, and how some are smashing the stereotypes that have marginalised them for their entire lives, as well as giving a new prospective on how we as a society expect them to act.
We talked with Doglegs director Heath Cozens to find out more about Doglegs and the guys behind the league that’s been going since 1991.
What were you doing in Tokyo before discovering Doglegs? Had you covered anything quite like this before?
Mostly working in documentary and factual programming as either a production coordinator or shooter, and sometimes director. I also produced some commercials. I’ve shot with MMA fighters, sumo wrestlers and so on – and disabled people. But I’d never encountered anything like Doglegs.
I think the first word on everyone’s mind when they hear “disabled wrestling” is exploitation, but Doglegs is anything but, correct?
You know, it’s a necessary and good question. I think it’s at the heart of many Westerner’s concerns. It was one of mine, too, when I first encountered the group. But when I got to know the group better, my feelings changed.
The rewards for the fighters are physical and emotional, not financial – the promotion itself doesn’t even make any money. So all the fighters are getting up there, unpaid, of their own volition.
Is it exploitation or is it empowerment? I guess that’s one of the main questions of the film. But it’s the viewer that’s being interrogated and forced to produce the answer. The follow-up question is: who’s place is it to make that call?
Maybe, if we’re worrying about exploitation, we should examine where those well-intentioned concerns are coming from. Let’s put it another way: is your first concern about able-bodied wrestlers that they’re being exploited? Or do you pretty much assume that they’re by-and-large agents of their own free will? What’s the difference when it’s the disabled?
As my mother used to say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
For the fighters it varies. Some guys just like fighting. Some guys just want to win. Some want to show that they’re tough. But I’d say the most common one is simply to smash preconceptions and taboos about how the disabled should behave, and how they should be treated. A reclaiming of territory and identity.
But from the audiences point of view, it’s a combination of entertainment. What you come to realise in the end is that it’s a meticulously planned stealth assault on one’s senses and your preconceptions. Doglegs really does a number on your psyche.
What was your mindset when you first went to see a match for yourself?
I was worried that I might have to do some expose of disabled abuse.
Do you think the general public in Japan look at the disabled differently than those in the west?
I guess so… but not hugely differently to be honest. The most prominent difference I have headed is how disabled people have been kept out of view – seen as an embarrassment to their families.
Then there’s the institutionalized bullying that disabled people often face in school and at the workplace – it’s extreme.
And then there’s the expectations placed on disabled people to be good and not cause any problems etc – not go wandering off to unsanctioned coffee places, etc…
It’s not really a question I feel that qualified to answer, actually. I don’t really know!
Western media outlets are always on their toes when it comes to finding and questioning Japanese underground subcultures, but Doglegs itself has been around since 1991, how has it managed to stay under the radar for so long?
It has been picked up here and there – but I think that western news organizations, for example, felt that it was too risky a topic to deal.. There is still the stigma of freak shows etc, and people automatically assume that Doglegs is a freak show, and therefore featuring the group would be seen as an endorsement of exploitation and abuse of these poor, helpless disabled victims…
Who picks the match-ups? How do they make sure it’s a fair fight?
Kitajima, the organizer. Doglegs has a variety of different levels, from those who fight on their back, to those who can kneel, to those who can stand. And then there’s the musabetsu-kyuu, what you might call the no-discrimination class, where they mix it up. They’ll often use rope to tie up stronger opponents to even things up – but not always. It’s a mix of Japanese-style pro wrestling MMA and stuff where the drama and/ or humor of the situation, and the meaning of the match – i.e.: what is being communicated is more important than win/lose itself. It’s not kayfabe.
Roughly how many people are currently actively competing in Doglegs? Is there a set roster or can anyone join in?
About 40 potential wrestlers are ready to go at any time. Maybe more. There are always new guys waiting in the wings. Kitajima will give anybody a shot. If they have that special something, then they get called back.
The film follows a handful of characters of varying disabilities, what was it about these fighters in particular that compelled you to tell their story rather than any others in the league?
I chose the guys based on a number of factors .. Is Doglegs really important to them? Are they open to letting me film? Am I getting a good cross section of the group? And importantly, where is the drama? I found it in Shintaro, who wants to defeat his mentor, L’Amant, a heavily disabled cross-dressing nutter who wants to fight but who must first beat the bottle. And then there’s his clinically depressed care-worked Nakajima, who battles his own demons, in the ring…
That said, they’re generally all very interesting people and would be even if they weren’t disabled. I could spend my life making movies about Doglegs!
Japanese people seem to like to keep their personal lives to themselves, how did they feel when you first pitched the idea for the documentary? Was it a drawn out process?
It was a long process, but it was basically just getting through Kitajima-san. He is the boss… I had to convince him to let me film; it took 6 months. After that it was pretty easy. After all, these are pro wrestlers. They like the spotlight. And in this case, a lot of them have a political point to make as well.
What has been the reaction to the film so far? Have you had any negative words about the film or Doglegs itself?
Surprisingly, most people really get it. (Please see the “Buzz” section of the doglegsmovie. com to get an idea of how its been received). In Japan. we’re scoring a 4.4/5 on user-review site Filmarks, and 8.1/10 on IMDB. Reviews have been incredible. A small subset of people don’t get it though, no matter how hard you try. The fear of exploitation colors their view so much that they can’t see what’s really going on.
What do you hope people get from seeing Doglegs?
I hope that they have a great movie watching experience, laughing and crying with cool characters who are fun to be around. I want them to be entertained! This isn’t some depressing, po-faced excercise in finger-waggling and telling you how you should think. I hope that they experience what I did – an emotional roller coaster that puts you in shock, makes you laugh, makes you cry , makes you angry. And then, when you have sit down and untangle those feelings, I hope that they, as I did, look in the mirror and examine where those feelings are coming from.
Doglegs is currently playing in theatres across Japan, with an international release date expected sometime this year. For more information, including the remaining screening dates, head over to Doglegsmovie.com.
Words by Charles Shepherd