Just because you're born with cerebral palsy, doesn't mean you don't want to give somebody a body slam in front of a cheering crowd. Granted, you might not be able to pick that person up and spin them above your head, but if your opponent has both legs amputated then maybe you've got a good chance of thrashing them with a brutal "cobra clutch" (that's a wrestling move, apparently).
Tokyo's disabled pro wrestling league wants to challenge, head-on, the way people with disabilities are consistently left out of things – thing like sweaty, hard wrestling. The league – called "Doglegs" welcomes anybody in the ring, as long as they have a "disability" of some sort. The distinctions are a little vague, though. Here, being disabled can run the gamut from having multiple sclerosis to depression, and the rules are decided before a game. For example, if you're more able-bodied than somebody else then you might tie your legs together to make it "even". It's all down to the personal preference and agreement of the wrestlers.
Filmmaker Heath Cozens has been making a documentary on Tokyo's disabled pro wrestlers for the past five years and is currently trying to crowd fund his way to finishing it. I called him for a chat about his documentary and the future of Doglegs.
VICE: Hi Heath, tell me a bit about the history of Doglegs.
Heath Cozens: Well, they've been a pro wrestling outfit since 1991. Kitajima, the organiser of the whole thing, used to be a recluse. He locked himself up in his room for a year when he was in high school but after seeing a show about disabled people on TV, he was inspired to come out of his room and pull together a bunch of young guys who were disabled but didn't feel comfortable in the disabled community.
The volunteer group turned into a pro wrestling league because this guy Shintaro and another Doglegs member had fallen in love with one of the volunteers from a local university and they would each call her up 20 times a day. She eventually had a nervous breakdown and stopped coming. They blamed each other and it came to blows and they fought. That was the genesis of Doglegs, because it felt like an awakening. It was a realisation that they could do whatever the hell they wanted. It was so unusual to have disabled dudes stripping off and fighting like that. They felt quite liberated.
Why did you decide to make the documentary?
Me and my journalist mate were pitching video news stories to the Wall Street Journal, but when he mentioned this disabled pro wrestling league in Tokyo I thought that it sounded more like a documentary. There's a whole host of connotations and questions that those words bring up.
Why do you think a pro wrestling league for disabled people hasn't made it into the mainstream, or, for example, into Paralympic games?
I guess pro wrestling is something you do as a show and for entertainment, right? So the idea that you would go along and be entertained by watching disabled people do things might be somehow associated with "freak shows" and they worry about exploitation of things like that.
Do you think it's exploitative or empowering?
I think that's a good question to raise, and I hope the audience who watches my film thinks about that. I think it's empowering because it's their own decision. Nobody's making any money from it.
This question of "Is it exploitation?" – I think you have to look at where that question comes from. For me, when I asked myself, I realised that there's a set of assumptions that go along with it. Maybe a better question would be: "Why do you get in the ring?" rather than assuming that someone is not an agent of their own free will.
Why do you think people get in the ring?
Everyone is in there for their own sets of reasons, and I can't speak for anyone's motivations but I could tell that Shintaro likes being on stage – he likes being the star. For Nakajima, who is clinically depressed, his reasons are more complex. He wants recognition. Fighting is a way to draw attention to show that he's overcoming a disability that's interior. Of course, that has mixed results.
What do you think counts as a "disability"? Because the idea of a mental health condition being labelled as such will be controversial for many.
I don't really think there's an answer for that. Shintaro told me that everybody has a disability, even the able-bodied, and I think he's right. Nobody can do everything.
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As the range at Doglegs is so far-reaching, how do the organisers make sure the fights are fair?
Well, they have four classes; people who lie on their backs and fight, people who sit and fight, people who stand and fight and then there's an open class where they mix things up. They might tie somebody up in the open classes or just head butt each other. Although, sometimes, they don't worry too much about making it even.
The ring announcer said, "There's no special rules – rules will be determined by each fighter's pride," so I guess that makes sense.
Each fight is created in a way that has a certain impact, and with certain things that are conveyed to the audience. So it's entertainment and it's also a form of extreme liberation for participants. There's political messages tied up in there. Disabled people don't have to conform to people's preconceptions. They can do whatever they want.
Do you think there's still a tendency to pussyfoot around disabled people?
For sure. But if we do all have a disability, the only clear dividing line is when someone is perceived as having a disability. So, if you see someone who you think has a disability, you're placing your limiting beliefs on them. When, actually, people should be able to determine the perimeters of their own behaviour.
Has there ever been any negative feedback about the wrestling?
I believe there are some people in Japan who are against it, but Japanese society is very good at pushing things under the carpet or averting eyes. I feel like Doglegs wanted to cause more of a stink than they managed to.
Who are the typical audience members at Doglegs shows?
The shows attract a crowd of regulars. Usually they're people who work within the disabled community, like carers, friends or family. Other disabled people come, too.
Do you think disabled pro wrestling will ever really take off?
There are already two splinter groups in Japan who have taken inspiration from Doglegs and there are an active list of about 40 people who go at one time. It would be cool if it took off, but I don't necessarily think it will.
People often try out and give it a shot, but whether they stay on as a regular is determined by how interesting they are and what entertainment qualities that they bring to it. There was recently a young female university student who wanted to fight with disabled people. She wanted to connect and show her respects, I think. To fight someone can be a sign of respect, and I think that's what Doglegs is all about.