Nearly 300 spectators cheered wildly as disco music blared. A spotlight picked out two fighters approaching the ring to kick off a puroresu (prowrestling) event held recently in a Tokyo town hall.
Then a female MC announced, in a startlingly high-pitched voice: “In the blue corner, E.T.! In the red corner, Arm Bomb Fujiwara!”
Both wrestlers were physically handicapped and had to be helped or lifted into the ring. But when the starting bell rang, the men — both of them sitting and rolling around on the canvas — began punching each other with all the power and accuracy they could muster.
Blows landed thick and fast, and the crowd roared. Then Arm Bomb Fujiwara got his arm round E.T.’s neck and began to throttle him. As E.T.’s face reddened to puce and he started shaking, the referee called a halt to the bout and declared a win for Arm Bomb — who raised his fist high as the crowd laughed and shrieked.
That night, many of the dozen disabled wrestlers from the Doglegs group that staged the show in western Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa district looked truly fired up and fearless. In melodramatic contrast, the few able-bodied participants were wimps, including one going by the name of “Mushikera Goro (Worthless Goro)” who, according to the program, was a hikikomori (long-term stay-at-home recluse) with a big-time Oedipus complex. He lost out to 41-year-old “Anchi-teze” (Antithesis) Kitajima, the broad-shouldered nondisabled man who is also Doglegs’ leader.
But why stage contests in which one or both participants are so clearly disadvantaged? What is it all about? That question only grew more troubling as one bout succeeded another.
Finally, in the climax to the evening’s entertainment, a short man in a wheelchair who went by the name of “L’Amant” (French for “lover” or “sweetheart”) appeared, wearing his favorite costume of a girl’s sailor outfit. Facing him after he was lifted out of his chair and put in the ring was his own nondisabled, 8-year-old son, named “Petit L’Amant.”
The announcer declared: “L’Amant wants no sympathy, he would rather hope to show his gachinko [ferocious] spirit!”
The son, his hands and feet bound with ropes, rolled around, kicking his father in the stomach. The father also kicked his son’s head as much as he could. The wife and mother at the ringside cheered and hollered — for her son — shouting, “Watch out! Run! Oh, don’t cry!” The latter in particular made the audience erupt in laughter.
But as the bout dragged on, the spectators became more subdued as, it seemed, their excitement wore off and silences descended.
The boy’s exasperated panting only got louder until, after three rounds of three minutes each, the final bell rang and the referee declared the father the winner. L’Amant, asked to comment, feebly said “thank you” to Petit L’Amant who, through his sobbing, could only manage a nod.
So, that was that — but still those troubling questions remained unanswered.
In addition, what prompts hundreds of people to pay 3,500 yen each to watch a roped schoolboy trying to beat up his disabled, cross-dressing father — in front of strangers? And why would disabled wrestlers engage in acts that could possibly add to their physical woes, even though the event’s rules ban attacks to contestants’ disabled areas.
“That’s our intention — to make people think,” said Doglegs’ leader and cofounder Kitajima — real name, Yukinori Kitajima — who makes a living not from running Doglegs but from writing fiction and computer-game scenarios.
Speaking after the two-hour event had ended, the father of two young girls said that over the past 15 years the group has performed around 70 times all over Japan, and once in South Korea. Then he explained: “We don’t want to show something for people to simply laugh at and walk away. You might get a laugh out of our matches at times, but we also want people to wonder what this all means. We want to give people a nasty aftertaste.”
He added that none of the “pro” wrestlers are paid, and all the ticket revenue is plowed back into staging the events.
Rather than leaving with a nasty aftertaste, though, one American member of the audience — who asked to be identified only as Tom — said he found the wrestlers “inspiring.”
“I just find it very inspiring for people to be able to go beyond their limits and take up the challenge,” said the 45-year-old man, who was attending his third event. “Sometimes it’s almost shocking, sometimes tragic, but then when you see the fighters victorious, it’s very moving.”
First-time spectator Kotoko Kodama, a consultant at a life insurance company, also appeared to have missed out on any nasty aftertaste, instead saying that Doglegs offered a chance to see disabled people from a fresh angle.
“I’ve seen documentaries of handicapped people striving to eke out a living as best they can, but I realize there are diverse ways of expressing yourself,” Kodama said. “We tend to brand handicapped people with certain stereotypes. I now realize how arrogant that is.”
To hear what the fighters themselves had to say, I visited the group recently at a Setagaya Ward community hall in a posh residential neighborhood, where members meet once a week to practice, or just chat with each other over cans of beer.
Shintaro Yano, a k a “Sambo Shintaro,” who is Kitajima’s longtime friend and cofounder of Doglegs, greeted me with a big smile. The friendly man who was afflicted with cerebral palsy when he was 10 months old and has speech problems, said while fiddling with rubber bands, that the idea of wrestling came when he got into a fight with another disabled man over who got to date a young female volunteer.
“I want to show off myself to people,” he said, “and I’ve liked watching puroresu ever since I was in elementary school.” Then he hunched over and whispered: “To tell you the truth, I have a goal — I want to fight Kitajima-san someday, but it’s not easy to fight him because I can only be pitted against someone who matches my strength.”
When I asked him about the rubber bands, he looked embarrassed and acknowledged that it was his nervous habit, but quickly added that he had many other hobbies too. “I’m a big train freak,” he said — at which Kitajima cut in and said that Shintaro buys the latest version of the JR train schedule every two months. “I like traveling,” he said. “I’ve been to Ehime [in Shikoku], where I’m from, three times in the last two years.”
L’Amant, whose real name is Koji Oga, was also there, sipping cheap sake through a straw while his wife, Mizuho, and their Petit L’Amant stayed close. “Wrestling to me is a form of self-expression,” he said, his face red from drinking. “Let’s leave it at that.”
OK, so no one is forcing them to wrestle — but that doesn’t mean that Doglegs are without their critics.
Yoshihiko Kumashino, who is himself wheelchair bound, said after watching the event that Doglegs appeared to be a “haphazard mix” of entertainment and serious wrestling.
“How am I supposed to feel after seeing a father fighting his kid — in a sailor’s outfit?” Kumashino asked. “I couldn’t laugh, and I couldn’t sympathize either.”
But for Doglegs’ cofounder Kitajima — himself a former hikikomori who spent a year locked in his room as a teen — laughter or sympathy seemed far from what he sought through the events.
He started Doglegs after smelling hypocrisy in what he calls the “volunteer industry.” After quizzing many other able-bodied volunteers who joined support groups for the disabled about their motives, he said many were there out of their own need to fill a void.
“Those groups are closed and protective, and it was comfortable for people like me who felt weak back then,” Kitajima said. “I think volunteering itself is good, and I’m not criticizing someone who tries to help someone else. But I don’t want people to forget that they are dealing with human beings, not educational materials.
“Many volunteers I saw 15 years ago were doing it because they had no other places to go, and they were less interested in interacting with disabled people than they were among themselves. . . . We started Doglegs because we wanted to send a message beyond our closed world.”
Part of that message, Kitajima explained, was also to show disabled fellow citizens as they really are — sometimes with their idiosyncrasies and character flaws — instead of glorifying them as he said that the media often do.
“For a child to grow up with a disabled, alcoholic, cross-dressing father . . . it’s not a beautiful story,” said Kitajima, who recounts his own troubled childhood in his 1997 book “Muteki no Handicap (Unbeatable Handicap).” There, he describes how he became a recluse due to being disillusioned with his mother, who relieved the stress of caring for his terminally ill father by splurging on host clubs. “Life’s complexities ooze out in the wrestling matches. It’s not just the sadness of losing that the boy [Petit L’Amant] cried for.”
But Kitajima is clearly aware that Doglegs is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea. He does, however, welcome criticism, saying that it is precisely the stifling of criticism that he is fighting.
“I want the reality surrounding disabled people to be known,” he said.
“While the wrestlers all have different feelings, they are here because they have something they are dying to express.”