Disabled wrestlers enter the ring in Japan

Kitajima on top of Shintaro pinning him down Image copyright Alfie Goodrich

A wrestling club made up of mostly disabled fighters is the focus of a new documentary. The director, Heath Cozens, hopes it will challenge people's perceptions of what is right and wrong when it comes to disability.

In downtown Tokyo inside a traditional town hall, a paraplegic man throws his head forward to headbutt another. Both of their legs are tied together and, lying on the floor of the ring, they wrestle until the bell signals the end of the round.

The next fight is introduced and Shintaro "Sambo" Yano, a 46-year-old man with cerebral palsy slowly enters the ring.

His opponent is Yukinori "Antithesis" Kitajima, Shintaro's long-running wrestling arch nemesis. But Kitajima isn't disabled, and is noticeably stronger than Shintaro.

"He's the Hitler of disabled care," shouts the female announcer as she introduces Kitajima. Then the fight begins.

Heath Cozens, a video journalist and documentary maker has been watching the wrestlers go head-to-head for more than five years. He felt uncomfortable when he first attended a fight night and saw the violent scenes of disabled people being pummelled to bleeding point.

Image copyright ALfie Goodrich

"I was so shocked I almost wanted to laugh," he says, "then I felt bad about wanting to laugh at disabled people, so I felt ashamed. I just couldn't figure out if this was exploitation, entertainment or true equality."

Initially he felt it was an abusive situation, especially when he realised that non-disabled people were pitched against disabled opponents who are physically much weaker than them. He even considered making an expose, but after approaching the wrestlers and beginning to film with them, his views changed, and his new documentary emerged.

Named after the wrestling group, the film Doglegs follows five members of the Tokyo league as they confront their disabilities and personal lives - both in the wrestling ring and out. For Cozens it was a chance to show the realities of their lives, and the stark contrast of their experiences in and out of the ring. "These are people who experience extreme prejudice in most areas of their lives," he says, "but Doglegs gives them an escape from that."

At the heart of the film is Shintaro - the star of the wrestling group. He started Doglegs 20 years ago, after a fight with another disabled man over the affections of a woman made him realise how much they had both enjoyed the competition and physicality of the brawl.

Image copyright Alfie Goodrich
Image caption Nakajima has severe depression and often cries in the ring

Along with Kitajima - his life-long friend and wrestling partner - Doglegs was created as just this, a place for disabled people to go and have fun, away from the prejudices of their day-to-day.

Since then it has grown and is now made up of 40 wrestlers. Hundreds of people turn up to watch their fights and the crowds mostly consist of other disabled people and their carers. It is a real community, Cozens says, and disability is at the heart of it.

The group includes people with a number of different disabilities, from multiple sclerosis to mental illness, and all are given their time to prove themselves in the ring.

Yuki Nakajima has severe depression and is currently undergoing treatment for cancer. He often weeps openly when making the walk to the ring as alter ego "Hopeless Goro". Out of the ring he is close to the other members of the group. They joke about each other's disabilities and perceived hardships, poking fun of the way each other looks, or the struggles they may endure.

"It's like when I told you guys I first had cancer," Nakajima says, "Shintaro looked up and said 'pass the beer'... It was great. It was so Doglegs."

Image copyright Alfie Goodrich

Outside the ring Nakajima has a job as the carer for another wrestler Ooga "L'Amant" Ohga who has cerebral palsy. For most of the day Ohga has to stay in his small flat, since his disability and alcoholism is causing serious ill-health.

Technically the wrestlers are split into four different "classes": Those who lie on their backs to fight, those who sit and fight, those who stand and fight, and an open class. This last option has fluid rules including all wrestlers being tied up, or just headbutting. But sometimes the rules are ignored entirely, Cozens explains.

So it is that Ohga, weighing just 39kg goes against his 80kg wife in the ring. Her legs are tied together in an attempt to make their physicality more equal but she is still able to launch herself into the air to come crashing down onto Ohga, or lift him up and chuck him onto the ring floor.

It seems impossible that Ohga would enjoy this physical barrage, but after one fight in which he is deemed victorious he triumphantly takes the microphone stating: "This is the only place we can can fight and win... I will fight in this ring as long as I live."

Image copyright Alfie Goodrich

It's clear that in the ring is the only place Ohga feels equal, and Cozens says that for most of the wrestlers it's this that makes them want to give the matches their best shot, pain or not. "It doesn't matter if you're paraplegic, have depression, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, everybody can get in that ring together and wrestle. In the street people stare at them but they would never expect them to be in a ring that evening wrestling."

He is keen to point out that people may feel uneasy watching the film. "A lot of non-disabled people feel uncomfortable looking at disabled people's bodies in general," he says, "but that is one of the most important things about Doglegs, that they are saying unapologetically, 'look at me doing this and focus on what my body looks like as I do it.'"

While life in the ring may be enjoyable, outside of the ring the relationship between two members - Shintaro and Kitajima - is intense. They are incredibly close and view each other as brothers. But Kitajima pushes Shintaro harder than anybody, calling him a "loser", slapping him and urging him to keep practising when he is tired.

As the documentary progresses, their bond in particular is focused on. The time has come for their 20-year battle to be over. Shintaro wants more, and has decided to retire from Doglegs. He wants to be happy now and find love, he says.

But first, he must face Kitajima one more time in the ring.

"I won't be a pathetic cripple no more," Shintaro says, "I'm going to beat Kitajima."

Image copyright Alfie Goodrich

Doglegs has just had its US premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin but hasn't yet been screened in the UK. Mat Fraser, a presenter and actor who is thalidomide-impaired, says a UK audience will probably struggle to understand Doglegs and be shocked by it. Having spent time in Japan with the wrestling group, he's keen that people approach it with an open mind. "You have to contextualise Doglegs in Japan, where being a man means being a warrior. These men are being warriors when they enter the ring," he says.

Fraser sees the wrestling group as a wholly positive thing, but wrestling fan Tom Caster - who has cerebral palsy - says he would be concerned about disabled people being exploited if a similar group was set up here.

"It's all well and good for people to say this is all fun, but I think it is a step backwards to the era of the freak show rather than a sign of equality," he says. "I would feel very uncomfortable with people laughing at me or finding entertainment in me fighting another disabled person."

Cozens says his main aim with this documentary is to challenge people's "knee-jerk reactions of what is right and wrong when it comes to disability." Whether Doglegs, and the relationships between the wrestlers are "right" is very much left up to the viewer to decide.

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