DOGLEGS: THE ABLED AND DISABLED FIGHTING TOGETHER TO BREAK DOWN BARRIERS

In Japan, the handicapped have to literally fight for their right to live and be treated with dignity. Some of them do.
On 27th July, 19 residents of a nursing home for the disabled in Sagamihara, just outside of Tokyo, were stabbed to death while 20 more were injured. The murderer Satoshi Uematsu (26) gave himself up to the police soon after the brutal killings. As the day wore on, reports revealed that Uematsu had been an employer of the facility until February this year and had been let go for his discriminatory behavior and actions against the disabled.
His murders were motivated by his belief that “the disabled are a burden on society”. This belief seemed to have been gradually solidified during his time as a caretaker at the facility and culminated in a submission of a letter to the leader of a speaker of the lower house of parliament, Tadamori Oshima, in which he stated that his goal was a world “where the severely disabled who cannot manage life at home or be an active member of the society can make the choice of being euthanized with the consent of their guardians. The disabled are only capable of creating unhappiness” whilst offering his ability to “kill 470 disabled people” and asking to be rewarded for his planned actions. The letter subsequently led to the termination of his job at the facility since he was taken into psychiatric assessment for two weeks. He claimed the termination was uncalled for. His Twitter account also details his thought process leading to the attacks. In his final post, right before the attacks, he tweeted “Beautiful Japan” along with a selfie of his eery smile.
As disturbing as that was, what caused more animosity was the way some people voiced their sympathy to the killer. While there was an outpouring of grief and anger in the aftermath of the crime, some on social media admitted the fear they felt for understanding his motives and others, the fear that it could very well be themselves, overworked with their many responsibilities of working and taking care of elderly parents.
This is perhaps not so surprising, since in Japan, even an outwardly discriminatory comment by a political figure goes unchecked.
Former Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, known for his countless discriminatory comments on the disabled, sexual minorities, women, Chinese and Korean people along with his many scandals and misusage of taxpayers money, commented on the murders in an interview on literary magazine Bungakukai in their October issue.
“In a way, I understand the killer’s feelings.” As if that was not enough, he continued to add insult to injury introducing an episode from his past. “When I went to Germany a long time ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a middle aged doctor. His father, under Hitler’s reign, had led the hundreds of thousands of killings of the homosexual and disabled people. This man was so proud of this fact and said ‘My father did a good deed. Mr. Ishihara, for two hundred years going forward, we Germans won’t have any crazy people’.”
A lot can be said for the people of Tokyo who let a man known for making such despicable comments rule for ten years. Such was his influence and power that even the media often refrained from criticizing him too.
However, there are a few handicapped people in Japan who would now like to punch Ishihara in the mouth. And some of them could. And maybe they should.
This April, it would have been a delight to see Ishihara be in the ring.

At the Doglegs tournament this April
At the Doglegs tournament this April

Here was the scene at in the Town Hall Arena of Shimokitazwa, hipster central of Tokyo. In the middle of the dimly lit ring stands two fighters, although these are not your ordinary heavyweight combatants. One fighter’s ring name is “No Sympathy,” while the other, “Delivery Health Ranger” refers to a category of legal Japanese escort services, essentially people who provide sexual relief to the handicapped. Both fighters have severe disabilities, but that doesn’t stop “No Sympathy” from using his elbows and the edges of his hands to repeatedly pummel “Delivery Health” into the mat, soon resulting in a TKO. The crowd cheers intensely for “No Sympathy,” giving the fighter a type of accomplishment hard to come by for disabled people such as himself.
As you can imagine, this isn’t a traditional wrestling location, but rather “Doglegs,” a controversial handicapped pro-wrestling league that pits physically and mentally disabled, and sometimes able-bodied people, against each other, all while crushing stereotypes and promoting cross-barrier friendship. This year is the 25th anniversary of Doglegs, and on April 23rd, in Kitazawa Town Hall, the 90th match was held to a standing room-only crowd of 270 people. The crowd was made up of friends, family members, wrestling fans, other handicapped people, and many curious people who had seen the documentary about the league, Doglegs directed by Heath Cozens, released this year in Japan.
Doglegs aroused great controversy in the 90s when it first began as mocking the disabled but it has now had a cult following for decades. However, a documentary released this February in Japan re-energized the league, and brought it international attention and many who came to match this day wanted answers to what happened after the movie. These days it’s almost impossible to discuss Doglegs, the league, without discussing Doglegs, the film as well.
Director Heath Cozens, a New Zealand native and a long time expat of Japan, recalls being thrown off when he first heard of Doglegs from a friend circa 2009. “I had a strange range of reactions – amusement, shock, amazement. I couldn’t work out if it was exploitation or entertainment.”
But after seeing the actual fights, his doubts were turned around onto himself. In the ring, where the only rule is “the pride” of the wrestlers, he watched all levels of disabled and abled bodies clash, a scene that was brutal, shocking and brimming and narrated by the announcer with politically incorrect black humor.
“It was entertaining as hell, but my conscience was turning over – what does it mean? And how the hell was I supposed to feel about this? The more I tried to work it out, the more questions came. It felt momentous, like I was having some sort of corrective brain surgery or something. Which is exactly what it is. Doglegs like a hard-reset button for your hidden prejudices.” And so begun the five year process of making the film. It is now available online and as Video on Demand.
Doglegs is still going strong. They usually hold two matches a year. Each match has its own rules and time limits customized for the players. While the able-bodied do wrestle the disabled, handicaps are applied. For example, when Makoto Tsuruzono, who has an upper body like the Incredible Hulk but legs that don’t work, his opponent has their legs bound to compensate.

The wrestler “Alcoholism” pummels his opponent, "Worthless Goro",  who suffers from depression during the 25th anniversary Doglegs match.  April 15th 2016, photo taken by Jake Adelstein  *Alcoholism is the older man
The wrestler “Alcoholism” pummels his opponent, “Worthless Goro”, who suffers from depression during the 25th anniversary Doglegs match.
April 15th 2016, photo taken by Jake Adelstein
*Alcoholism is the older man

When a competitor gives up, the match is won. If there is no clear winner, the judges decide the victor, computing the handicaps of both parties in their decisions.
Yukinori Kitajima, the representative of the organization who also wrestles under the name “Antithesis Kitajima” told the Japan Subculture Research Center that the group originated from a fight between two members of a barrier free activity group, when the two disabled men fought over an abled volunteer female member of the group in 1990. This fight ended in a ground match full of wrestling moves that everyone watched with great interest and amusement.
The members decided that this impromptu wrestling match was something that would allow them to break out of the bubble created in the usual special needs communities. The members felt that whenever they would perform, the audience consisting of family members and teachers, would applaud regardless of their performances, because the parents and teachers felt they had to. On the other hand people on the street either look away, making them feel invisible or stare, alienating them. The members of Doglegs wanted to be really “seen” by an actual audience. In 1991, Japan was still in the middle of a pro-wrestling boom and pro-wrestling seemed like the answer.
The documentary follows the lives of five members of Doglegs, in and outside of the ring—and the 25-anniversary match was in a sense, supposed to be a live action sequel to the film.
One of the most memorable characters in the documentary is a wrestler who calls himself “L’Amant” (the lover). He is a cross-dressing man suffering from systemic paralysis who numbs his troubles with alcohol, hence “a heavyweight alcoholic”. He often declares that the ring will be his deathbed. Beside him is his abled-loving wife, Mrs.L’Amant, in a constant dilemma whether to take away the bottle or let him drink himself to death. She too, fights ruthlessly in the ring against her beloved husband. Sometimes body-slamming him, sometimes throwing him around the ring as if he was a beanbag.
The star of the film, Shintaro “Sambo” Yano, took part in the very first Doglegs match. He is a two decade Doglegs veteran and a janitor, who dreams of settling down with “a special lady and being happy” whilst literally grappling with the love and rivalry he feels for his mentor, Kitajima.
Shintaro’s challenges to Kitajima are part of how Doglegs took shape. After years of being told ‘you are the same as the abled’ in school, Shintaro had started working in 1990 and was just discovering that the world was not built in his favor. Even so, he just couldn’t win by simply getting a better job at a better company, but he still wanted a shot at winning somehow.
Kitajima reflects, “So fighting me was his answer, he may not win, but he could still try himself against an abled man and that might get him somewhere,” he explains. Kitajima says he fought back, with no reservations, because that’s what Shintaro wanted. But by doing this, he says that “our differences that words just couldn’t fill, somehow seemed to disappear when we faced each other stripped down to our underwear.” And although he never won against Kitajiama, Shintaro kept challenging Kitajima just as he kept fighting in his daily life. The movie ends in 2010, when Kitajima, fed up with Shintaro not practicing seriously proposed that their next match should have something on the line; the retirement of the winner.
But to say more would spoil the documentary.
The documentary left a lot of questions unanswered. What would happen to “The Lover”? Would he drink himself to death? Would Doglegs survive without Kitajima in the ring? Would Kitajima really retire?
And as if to answer all of these question, in the final bout of the 25th anniversary, all of the main characters came back for one giant tag team brawl—with even Kitajima fighting again for the first time in 5 years against his nemesis, Shintaro. Shintaro threw in in some good punches, and left Kitajima a standing offer to fight anytime.
The crowd loved it. There was massive cheering and applause after Kitajima thanked them for coming and supporting the group.
Aki Nakano, a bank employee from Saitama Prefecture, said, “I saw the movie in Tokyo and was intrigued. I love the way these people don’t give up. Their fighting spirit is so Japanese. They know they can’t win and yet they fight. It’s real wrestling.” He admits that some of the jokes made him uncomfortable but, “I think the laughter helps break down the barrier we have. Japanese people tend to treat the handicapped like gods to be feared or jinxes to be shunned. They’re neither; they’re just people.”
The wife of “L’amant” after the match told the Japan Subculture Research Center, “My husband has stopped drinking and his physical condition is good. We all wanted to be in the ring one more time for the fans,” she explained. Their son gained an interest in wrestling via Doglegs and excelled in the sport in high school to the extent that he got a wrestling scholarship to college. Kitajima continues to be the official face of Doglegs, while making a living as writer of books and comic books. Shintaro still continues to hold down blue-collar jobs and trains to wrestle in his spare time.
Makoto Tsuruzono, who uses a wheelchair to get around and works as an office administrator takes umbrage at those who call Doglegs “a freakshow” or “an oddity”. “It’s a great sport and I love doing it. And my fans love me and I love them.”
Kitajima is glad to see Doglegs continue.
“All humans are equal but not all lives are equal. The disabled in Japan aren’t treated as equals here. Let’s not deny it. But they have a right to fight for that equality and we gave it to them–no holds barred. Treating them with kid gloves would be a lack of respect.”

Critics Up In Arms Over Doglegs

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Heath Cozen’s controversial documentary ‘Doglegs’ has already scooped up a ‘Best Director’ award at Fantastic Fest 2015, and continues to divide critics since making the rounds of International film festivals.  

 

 

For the uninitiated, ‘Doglegs’ is an underground, radically-minded wrestling league formed by a group of physically and mentally disabled people and the volunteers who work with them. It’s a tight knit community with non-rigid rules of engagement and even membership. Its misfit lineup includes one clinically depressed cancer patient on a losing streak, the able-bodied wife of a dying alcoholic with severe cerebral palsy and even a comely professor/love interest of the film’s central fighter, Shintaro ‘Sambo’.

 

Part-time janitor Shintaro is the film’s featured protagonist, a dynamic and determined fighter who got his start in the ring dueling a fellow disabled man over the affections of a female volunteer worker at a Tokyo center for the disabled.   Although the outcome of the initial battle came with a double defeat where the young woman was concerned, Shintaro and his unnamed love rival develop a taste for adrenaline and challenge, a sensation too often denied to individuals deemed ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk’.  Twenty years on, Doglegs continues its legacy as a dissenting alternative to the ‘compassion” that hobbles the chances for disabled people to physically and emotionally engage with the world around them.

 

‘Doglegs’ the documentary is an unflinching, frequently disturbing (and more often hilarious) look at the people who risk life and limb in the ring to wage an uphill battle for autonomy and self-determination.   It’s shock value derives from its unapologetic celebration of “weak” minds and bodies taking high risk free falls and the sexual/spiritual awakening that ensues from direct contact with a flesh and blood adversary.  “Fight according to your pride” is the mantra that keeps the fighters in check and serves as the only ‘rule’ to an otherwise free-for-all Fight Club, where the real adversary is the marginalization that comes with second class status.

 

Bodies that are consigned to helplessness, cosseted, hidden and ultimately abhorred become autonomous, gravity defying symbols of personal struggle and social change. The rough and often brutalizing contact with fists and floors becomes a liberating and strength inducing catharsis these men seek to stake their place in the world.  Despite the limitations society places upon them as an unseen and largely condescended to minority, these underdogs prove they are a force to be reckoned with on their own terms, even when able-bodied nemesis ‘Antithesis Kitajima’ (a one time volunteer at the center where Shintaro and his fellow fighters formed Doglegs) enters the ring with no a holds barred intent to thrash his opponents mercilessly.

 

Director Heath Cozens, a long-term Tokyo resident now based in New York City, came to this project with a long list of media credentials that lend the project an unfiltered and consciously artless format in keeping with its hardboiled, “unsuitable for all ages” subject matter.  Cozens takes on a taboo subject that none of the news organizations he worked with could not or would not touch as subject matter for a newscast “human interest” segment, despite the group’s nearly urban legend status among the cognizenti of Tokyo’s underground scene.  It took Cozens six months before the group responded to his polite requests to document their now twenty year battle to smash stereotypes and destroy the low expectations imposed on them by societal indifference, and even worse, “compassion”.

 

Cozens is an absent, yet unsparing observer.  The film’s titular characters speak for themselves with the frank and often brutal assessment of their own chances at life in and out of the ring.   Doglegs’ “abled” advocates like Kitajima explain their own involvement in the project without ever lending their interpretation to the voices central to the film’s premise.  Beneath the rough-hewn and somewhat menacing exterior of ‘Antithesis’; a villain who proudly boasts of “Beating up the disabled for twenty years”  lies a shrewd philosopher on a mission to radically reconfigure society to enable its “loser dogs” to realize their potential.  He’s not going to let Shintaro retire from fighting without first issuing his “diabolical” challenge to gamble his decision on the outcome of a final match.  And Shintaro is not going to go down without delivering a final blow to the man standing in the way of his freedom.   Viewers expecting ‘Patch Adams’ will have their hopes dashed with boiling oil and a chainsaw.  To be clear, this is the film’s greatest strength; a refusal to submit a “life-affirming” narrative, often coming to blows with the low expectations of audience members expecting a Rocky Balboa outcome.  Doglegs isn’t going to change your mind, but alter the perceptions behind certain belief systems at the molecular level.  Doglegs demands its audience undergo the same ‘training’ as its protagonists, mocking weak-kneed aspiration in favor of a full-frontal assault against easy assumptions.

 

‘Antithesis Kitajima’ could very well be heir to the throne vacated by the late playwright, filmmaker, poet and sub-culture provocateur Terayama Shuji, who terrorized Tokyo in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s with his rogue band of theatre players ‘Tenjo Sajiki’ that boasted “perverts, gamblers and bicycle thieves” among its early ranks, and set out on a similar mission to free the imagination from the bourgeoisie stranglehold of home, hearth and country in post-war Japan.  Terayama was an enthusiastic pugilist despite a weak physical disposition resulting from Hepatitis contracted in childhood, and died at 47 from as a direct result of a decades long battle with a terminal disease.  Much of Terayama’s output was based on his own debilitating experiences with his neurotic mother intent on smothering him back into infantile dependency, and “killing mother” was a consistent underlying theme in his work. Doglegs, however, doesn’t seek audiences or even recognition beyond the immediate concerns of its fighters, even it it unconsciously at least, takes up Terayama’s clarion call for the unfettered imagination to take flight in the face of a “loving” adversary poised to strangle it in its crib.  Shintaro’s own mother offers her own brutal assessment of her parenting skills as a young, single mother trying to raise a mentally challenged son.  Her “harshness” she fears, have left lingering scars that will impede Shintaro further as advances through life without familiar caregivers.

 

Shintaro has successfully completed a program to qualify as a janitor and plans to live out the rest of his days gainfully employed in a vocation better suited to a man in middle age.  Kitajima could jeopardize his chances of peaceful retirement from a demanding, ultimately dangerous sport.   Kitajima himself is in his twilight years as a fighter (both in and out of the ring) and with the added responsibility of wife and child, can no longer sustain the demands of Doglegs.  His gradual extrication from the group, and from Shintaro in particular, provides a weighty, emotional counterpoint to the deadpan absurdism Cozens captures in merciless detail.  His cruel barbs at Shintaro, which Cozens wisely refrains from interpreting for his non-Japanese audience (“taking the piss” is part and parcel of local social norms) still cut as deeply as the visible wounds on the chronically depressed Nakajima, a self-cutter, whose inability to score a victory in the ring goads his despair and spirit in equal measure.  Kitajima’s ultimatum is less a sadistic rallying cry for Shintaro’s inevitable defeat, but a call to arms against the forces of complacency that threaten to consign Shintaro to peaceful obscurity.

 

Shockingly, to some of the demure, well-heeled critics of Doglegs stateside, the volunteers assist their employers as non-regulatory bodies, serving booze on command to a dying cerebral palsy member who wants to exit this plane drunk and wearing lingerie.  The group takes Shintaro to a sex museum in the resort town of Atami so he can reveal his romantic feelings for the university professor who advocates for them on an institutional level, while remaining a regular fixture ringside and in the group’s regular pub crawls. For the record, a night out with the members of Doglegs is no different than a night out with any  group comprising Shinjuku’s hard drinking demimonde.   The booze flows, the insults fly and a community is strengthened by an unparalleled camaraderie seldom found outside bars that serve up draft beer and tiny plates of boiled soybeans.

 

Along the way to Shintaro’s independent and well-considered decision to apply his hard-earned skills to a similarly challenging vocation, we meet Doglegs’ alternately challenged and determined members.  ‘L’Amant’ (The Lover) is in the throes of a deliberately induced alcohol poisoning, aided by his wife and caregivers who respect the dying man’s wishes to the extent of Mrs L’Amant (and even L’Amant Junior – a promising high school boxer) going into the ring and fighting each other to continue the old man’s legacy.  There is no greater love, it turns out, than a mother and son slugging it out in the ring to pay tribute to an ideal personified in one man’s losing battle with life and the victory he has achieved in ending it on his own terms. Let’s just say that this particular scene is why waterproof mascara was invented.  Our protagonists, however, have different ideas about ‘water works’ – allowing the camera a lingering shot inside L’Amant’s puke bucket, deferentially positioned to aid him in his quest for a sake-soaked funeral.

 

In the meantime, chronically and clinically depressed Nakajima bravely allows us a glimpse into his own world, exclusively peopled by the plush toys he has hoarded over a life time and now demand obeisance and blood offerings in the form of their hapless acolyte’s ritual offering of scars, worn proudly and defiantly on his chest.  If Kitajima is the intellectual force behind Doglegs then Nakajima is his corporeal counterpoint – mutilating the only abled part of himself to balance his internal agonies.  Even his diagnosis of cancer fails to elicit sympathy from his teammates, who are prepared to pulverize him in the ring to secure victory for themselves.  It’s this bold acceptance of the blows that life deliver that ultimately keep Nakajima on his meds long enough to confront his next opponent from a plethora of inner demons.

 

Throughout every pitfall along his remarkable journey toward selfhood, Shintaro – the heart of this unforgettable film – navigates his transition from dependency to self-actualization with the courage befitting a champion fighter.  As a trainee janitor freshly graduated from a literal school of hard knocks, he has applied a newly acquired  a life that will undoubtedly deliver him a fresh set of blows.  The poise and eventual confidence he demonstrates when mastering an industrial vacuum cleaner is every bit as captivating and breathe-bating as his attempts to wield supremacy over ‘Antithesis’ in the ring.   This time, though, ‘Antithesis’ is a distant inner voice spurring him towards yet another hard-earned defeat.

 

           by Jennifer Matsui
Sambo and Antithesis
Sambo and Antithesis
Sambo and Antithesis
Sambo and Antithesis
Antithesis and Jake
Antithesis and Jake
Antithesis and Reina
Antithesis and Reina
Sambo and Reina
Sambo and Reina

Doglegs disabled pro-wrestling: The fight club that wants you to stare

They’re uncomfortable sights, even for seasoned ringside aficionados: A deaf man and his opponent–paralysed from the waist down–bound at both hands and feet, reduced to head butting. Two men, normally wheelchair bound, writhe around on the canvas ring delivering blows to one-another with their elbows. It feels dangerous, almost wrong.

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The members of Doglegs, the self-described “superhandicapped” pro wrestling league, aren’t looking for your pity, however. They want you to watch, wide-eyed, and feel the power, the ability, and the fire hidden inside their unusual frames.

 

The idea for Doglegs was born in 1991 at a volunteer group for the disabled. Two men were arguing over a mutual romantic interest, and as the argument became more heated punches were thrown and a brawl began. The group went wild, both fighters and spectators, at the sudden, electrical feeling of strength and empowerment the fight had given them. The leader of the volunteer group saw the potential: pro wrestling as a platform for these fiery fighters to be seen, and to challenge the public’s views towards disability.

 

Fast-forward 20 years and Doglegs has developed quite a following, with public tournaments several times a year and somewhere around 30 fighters dogging it out. Disabilities range from those physically able-bodied, but afflicted with mental illnesses like alcoholism and clinical depression, to “miracle heavy class”, where fighters are unable to stand. Audience members are often also disabled or come from the disabled care community, along with a core base of able bodied supporters and fans. But regardless of their background, after seeing a Doglegs match viewers are left with much to think regarding their preconceptions of the disabled.

 

Director Heath Cozens wants to spread this mind-blowing opportunity to a wider audience. For the past three years, he has been documenting the lives of Doglegs wrestlers, with the hope of introducing their struggles and glories to people in and outside of Japan.

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His film centers around “Sambo” Shintaro, a man with cerebral palsy who is one of the heartbroken brawlers from the very first Doglegs fight. After 20 years, Shintaro is ready to retire from the league and focus on living a happy, normal life. Doglegs leader and organiser of the original volunteer group, Yukinori “Antithesis” Kitajima won’t make it easy on him, however. The able-bodied fighter challenges Shintaro to the match of a lifetime, on which his future hangs.

 

The bouts may be difficult to watch for some–seemingly “weak” people being violently beaten for the sake of entertainment. But that uncomfortableness is part of the film.

 

Says Cozens, “Hopefully, people will have unresolved questions and conflicting emotions forcing them to reassess their own assumptions about disability, how disabled people should be treated, and who gets to decide: Is what Doglegs is doing aspirational, healthy, fun? Or does it exacerbate and endanger already vulnerable people?”

 

For Doglegs brawlers themselves, wrestling is unquestionably about empowerment, and giving the finger to a society that often pushes them to the wayside. Says Shintaro, in an AFP news clip about the league, “This is a thing disabled people aren’t supposed to do, but we do it–and that’s why I like it.”

 

Cozens sees that as one of the keys to the film. “A lot of non-disabled people have resistance to seeing disabled people–they avert their eyes. But people with disabilities need to be seen to be recognized on a human level.  How do we bridge the gap? In this film, with drama, humor, and a dash of violence. In other words, entertainment. When people can empathize with the characters, then they start to see beyond their disabilities.”

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Currently, Cozens is seeking the financial support necessary to complete post-production on the film. He has high hopes for its release. “I hope the disabled people who watch will be inspired by the Doglegs fighters’ bravery and bravado, to live life on their own, unapologetic, terms. Maybe we’ll see some Doglegs spin-offs happening in the States?  It’s already happening here in Japan.”

 

For those who want a sneak peek of what it’s all about, on June 2, the crew will be hosting a fundraiser to help raise awareness of the film and funds to complete post-production. Along with live music and special guests, the event will feature two real, live Doglegs matches–an opportunity for attendees to find out how empowering disabled pro wrestling can be, for both them and the fighters.

 

Check out http://doglegsmovie.com/ for more info about the Doglegs documentary, and get details for Party for the Right to Fight! on Sunday, June 2 at Las Chicas in Aoyama.