Wrestling with Japan’s physically challenged, literally

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

In 1994, I reviewed “Invincible Handicap” (“Muteki no Handicap”), a documentary by scriptwriter and filmmaker Daisuke Tengan about a professional wrestling group called Doglegs whose members were both physically challenged men and able-bodied volunteers. Started in 1991, the Doglegs hardly fit the template of pitiable unfortunates being aided by selfless caregivers, so often found in local media depictions of those with disabilities.

Inside the ring, the Doglegs put on a show that was as uncompromisingly un-PC as their name. Fought prowrestling style, their bouts were bloody, bruising and unsettling, especially when able-bodied volunteers stepped into the ring with disabled opponents. The aim was not to stage a freak show, but rather to trash stereotypes about people with disabilities as weak, helpless victims by letting them tussle, no holds barred, in the ring.

Incredibly, two wrestlers from that ’94 documentary — Doglegs star “Sambo” Shintaro and volunteer leader “Antithesis” Kitajima — were still active when New Zealand journalist and filmmaker Heath Cozens first heard about the group in 2010. Other foreign reporters in Tokyo, a colleague told him, had attempted to write about the wrestlers, but their editors had rejected the subject as too outre.

Cozens was intrigued.

“As soon as I heard the words ‘handicapped wrestling’ I knew it was something that demanded a full treatment,” he told me at a Shibuya coffee shop.

When Cozens first went to see the Doglegs in action, he was surprised by a crowd he describes as “very middle class — not the kind of roughnecks you’d expect. People dressed in their Sunday best. Families and middle-aged women.”

However, the matches were no Sunday school picnic.

“It’s really confrontational,” he explains. “A bunch of dudes with heavy disabilities just going at it, beating up each other. Then the next match can be very humorous — a kind of dodgy, dokuzetsu (trash talking) black humor. They’re taking the piss out of each other in a serious way. You think, ‘Should I be laughing? Is this OK to laugh at?’ It’s this very uncomfortable feeling. Then the next one can be a straightforward match where you’re cheering on the wrestler you like”

Watching the matches, Cozens says, he felt “forced into a huge knot of emotions and conflicted reactions.”

“At the end you’re so shaken up by the ride that you have to look inside yourself to find how you should feel about it,” he says. “That’s what I liked about it.”

After this experience Cozens wanted to film the wrestlers even more, both in and out of the ring. The result is “Doglegs,” a documentary as upfront and uncensored as its subjects. Screened at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, and Austin Fantastic Fest, where Cozens won best documentary director honors, “Doglegs” will open at two theaters in Tokyo on Jan. 9, followed by a nationwide release. All screenings will have English subtitles.

Getting the project underway was not easy, however, even after Cozens decided to do it on his own, financing it mostly himself.

“I petitioned the (Doglegs) organizer with three long, carefully thought up, perfectly polished emails, but he ignored them” he says with a wry smile. “So I went to a speaking event where he was talking about Doglegs and told him I’m the guy sending you all these emails. He didn’t make eye contact, shuffled off and I thought that was it. But after about six months he finally capitulated and said, ‘Come to a Doglegs meeting and tell us who you want to film and let’s take it from there.’ “

Cozens took it very deep indeed, filming the wrestlers in both private and public moments, over periods of months. Some scenes are a blend of the funny and sad, as when Shintaro excitedly arranges a meeting with a female professor he likes at a picturesque seaside cafe, but is crushed when she turns him down for a date.

Others, however, are frankly hard to watch, as when a male caregiver brusquely pours liquor down the throat of an alcoholic, emaciated wrestler named L’Amant. Or when a clinically depressed, cancer-stricken volunteer named Nakajima shows the camera his leg sores, inside his trash-strewn apartment.

But there is also a point to these scenes beyond exploitation. They provide context to bouts that may otherwise look simply bizarre, such as the knock-down-drag-out contest between the still feisty L’Amant and his wife. They are also balanced by other, more positive perspectives, such as the way L’Amant’s teenage son, a highly ranked high school boxer, interacts respectfully with his parents, if shyly for the camera. Or the way Shintaro glows when he passes a test for his job as the leader of a custodial crew.

Beyond its individual portraits of wrestlers, disabled and able-bodied, the film has a clear narrative arc, concluding with a climactic, all-out “retirement bout” between Shintaro and Kitajima — a fight that both men want as a capstone to their long careers in the ring and as a seal to a close, if at times testy, friendship.

Showing the film abroad, Cozens has encountered a range of reactions, from the fans raving about it at Fantastic Fest in Austin (“The [film’s] extremeness was the hook for them to get emotionally invested,” he says) to the programming executive for a U.S. public broadcaster who told him, “I fail to see how an able-bodied man beating up a disabled man is in any way empowering — it seems like textbook emotional and physical abuse.”

Cozens says he wanted to ask the broadcaster, “Did you really watch it or did you go in with a bunch of preconceptions?”

“The surprising thing is that most people really got it,” he says, “even in America.”

One possible barrier to understanding, he explains, is the “idiosyncratic, iconoclastic subculture” depicted in the film. Another is the lack of explanatory talking heads or narration, for which he offers no apologies.

“There’s no authorial voice telling you how to think and interpret,” he says. “The onus is on the viewer to work out how they feel about it, which is the point. Once you untangle your feelings you start to realize that you’re the problem.”