(L-R) Doglegs co-founder, and star of the film, Shintaro Yano (ring name “Sambo” Shintaro) watches on as tag-team partner L’Amant delivers a kick to able-bodied “Antithesis” Kitajima’s face.
Credit:  Alfie Goodrich

Doglegs is a movie that may make you feel uncomfortable. Why? It is about people with disabilities in Japan… fighting each other.  Is that exploitation? We spoke to film director and producer, Heath Couzens, about the movie.

But first, watch the trailer:

Who are you and what do you do?

I am a freelance director and DP who also edits and produces.

What is your connection to Japan?

I came to Japan in 96, after wrapping up my degree in my hometown of Wellington, where I had made short films and worked in the local production industry.  I wanted to explore the world so I ventured out to Asia, and ended up settling in Japan.   I taught English for a while, had a live radio show, translated, made documentaries, and worked in broadcast news, factual programming and commercials.

What is “Doglegs”?

Doglegs is group of disabled and a few able-bodied wrestlers who fight to smash stereotypes about the disabled and care worker community.

How did it start?

It began as a an alternative group that was set up in opposition to the disabled community in Tokyo. Kitajima, the leader, was a former “hikikomori” as a teenager after having a traumatic school experience. He saw a telethon show on TV and was inspired by the disabled people doing stuff that he saw, so much so that he ventured out of his house for the first time in a year, and his first stop, as a high school drop-out, was the volunteer center. He felt “if they can do it, I can”.

The irony is that Doglegs totally rejects this kind of saccharine presentation of disabled people, and the burden that these representations place on the disabled.

After hanging out in the disabled and volunteer carer community for a while, he became attuned to how there was a kind of dichotomy in how the disabled were represented and treated in society – “broken on the outside, but pure and sweet on the inside”. He met Shintaro, a young man with mild CP at a camp event. Shintaro was singing in this choir thing despite not being able to hold a note or enunciate at all. At the end the audience politely clapped. And Kitajima thought it was bullshit. When he talked with Shintaro after, Shintaro felt the same – that it wasn’t sincere applause. That was a watershed moment – who wants to be condescended to? It was one incident among many Kitajima wondered if there wasn’t some other way that the disabled could define their own image.

Soon after, Kitajima and Shintaro and a group of like-minded young disabled guys made a breakaway group, where they could hang out, drink and talk dirty or whatever took their fancy.

Shintaro became embroiled in a rivalry for one of the volunteer girls – a college kid who had no interest at all in either of them. The rivalry came to blows, and as the two men fought, the rest of the group watched on in awe. Two guys with CP taking off their shirts and publicly brawling – it felt radical and fun. That was the spur – Kitajima realized that they could smash stereotypes and shock society of it its calcified thinking by showing disabled people as strong – or not… As real people.

Who is involved?

Disabled people, care workers and their family and friends. It’s a gathering place for a certain fringe of the disabled community.

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Are there any rules?

5 round matches of 3 minutes. Regular MMA tap-out/ rope-touch rules apply. Rules are often decided with the fighters beforehand. If someone with CP and strong contortion on a certain joint, then it’s OFF LIMITS to attack that afflicted joint.

In addition, they have four classes: those who lie on their backs, those who fight on their knees, and those who fight standing. Then there’s the “no prejudice” class where they mix it up. Normally, but not always, they will use rope to restrict the movements of the stronger party.

What is your connection? How did you hear about Doglegs?

I and a journo friend were looking for ideas to pitch to video news websites and it came up in conversation. Oh hearing of its existence, I knew immediately that it had to be a documentary.

Why did you decided to make a movie about this?

It was morally confusing. It sounded funny, dangerous, worrying, shocking, and powerful. I had so many conflicting reactions when I heard about it; I knew that it was important.

Are Doglegs events exploitation, or is there a message behind it?

You know, it’s a necessary and good question. I think it’s at the heart of many Westerners’ 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!

Who goes to the events, and what kind of atmosphere is it?

Regular people. Not really your pro wrestling crowd. Lots of disabled people and care workers and their typically well-to-do, polite family and friends.

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How can people see your film? (Particularly outside of Japan)

In Japan? See it at the movies! This is a cinematic film with a beautiful banging soundtrack that you want to hear in a BIG space. It’s screening as of TODAY, so come quick! http://doglegsmovie.com/#Screenings

People in Japan and not in Japan should sign up for the mailing list at http://doglegsmovie.com/#Mail or follow https://www.facebook.com/doglegsmovie and https://twitter.com/doglegsmovie.

If someone is in Japan, can they go to an event?

YES. They have matches twice a year, roughly. Next one is 4/23! Get your TIX NOW!! http://homepage3.nifty.com/doglegs/

How can we support the movie?

Please come see it in Japan! Earlier is better than later! And bring your friends because it’s going to blow your MIND!

Image of a phone displaying a person with a prosthetic leg hiking, with text promoting a community for travelers with disabilities on tabifolk.

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