Sometimes the best approach when deciding on a film to see at Fantastic Fest is to first look at he creative forces and see if the director’s previous output has registered a hit on your cinematic radar. Or you could go off genre type – is this something that’s in my wheelhouse?
Then you have Doglegs, a documentary packaged and sold to audiences on the premise of it being about disabled wrestlers. Not disabled as their glory days as entertainers are long gone, but disabled like handicapped. As someone who has an interest in wrestling, the existence of a wrestling league for the super-handicapped was a shock to the system. This was filmmaker Heath Cozens’s intent. He purposefully brings this subculture to the foreground not to only showcase but to, as the organization’s founder Yukinori Kitajimi proclaims, “shock the unthinking able-bodied out of their complacency and give them some real food for thought.”
Doglegs should feel wrong. Japan crosses the proverbial line all the time when it comes to wacky, so the thought the country has had a handicapped wrestling league for more than 20 years seems like a work.
Much like Cozens, I wasn’t sure how to react at first. Watching matches where physically or mentally disabled enter the ring with the purpose of engaging in amateurish combat (at best) feels exploitive. It feels wrong. That’s the initial gut reaction, but the documentary is less about spectacle and more about a large group of individuals that have been marginalized by a society that feels the need to coddle instead of letting them experience life. Over the course of 90 minutes we see this renegade wrestling league and journey behind the curtain as Cozens follows some of the prominent Doglegs members.
The star is Shintaro. He has been the star fighter of the promotion since its inception in 1991, which started out as a feud between two disabled men (Shintaro and another) over a volunteer girl. Through his participation Shintaro grows confidence in himself despite never being victorious. But after twenty years, he is looking to call it a career and focus on life beyond the ring where he hopes to get a girlfriend to go along with a job in the service industry.
Shintaro’s greatest nemesis is a man dubbed the “Antithesis.” Yukinori Kitajimi is the promotion’s booker and the volunteer leader that got fed up with the protocol of how to care for the handicapped and splintered off into a new faction of caretaking and what would eventually be called Doglegs. This man behind the scenes is also the biggest heel (villain) in the promotion, announced as “the man who has beaten up the disabled for twenty years.”
Other colorful personalities include a clinically-depressed introvert and hoarder (Yuki Nakajima), and the cross-dressing cerebral palsy-stricken L’Amant. His biggest vice is a drinking affliction. He is married to an able-bodied wife and they have child together, and they sometimes square off in the ring.
In the world of professional wrestling the primary goal is to entertain fans by having babyfaces (heroes) and heels square off. In the Doglegs promotion, there are characters in name and description only; the participants don’t allow their physical or mental imperfections define who they are. The venue where the wrestling cards are held draw in the area of 200 to 300 spectators, which is what is expected of an independent wrestling promotion looking to increase its exposure with the product it offers. But Doglegs is not about the presentation or making money. The end goal is self actualization.
Kitajimi’s vision, first as a volunteer worker then as one of the founding members of Doglegs, is to not pander when dealing with the handicapped. It’s not about passing judgements. And these fights are a respectful interplay that allows them to forge their own identities.
Doglegs is an inspiring story about life and serves up different responses and reactions from viewers. It is up to them to reassess societal norms about those who are handicapped and have us acknowledge that these men and women are as they are and not who we expect them to be.
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!