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Doglegs, An Unforgettable Film

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Heath Cozen’s controversial documentary ‘Doglegs’ will premier nationwide this week after a few limited screenings in select theaters around Tokyo.  ‘Doglegs’ has already scooped up a ‘Best Director’ award at Fantastic Fest 2015, and continues to divide critics since making the rounds of International film festivals.  

For the uninitiated, ‘Doglegs’ is an underground, radically-minded wrestling league formed by a group of physically and mentally disabled people and the volunteers who work with them. It’s a tight knit community with non-rigid rules of engagement and even membership. Its misfit lineup includes one clinically depressed cancer patient on a losing streak, the able-bodied wife of a dying alcoholic with severe cerebral palsy and even a comely professor/love interest of the film’s central fighter, Shintaro ‘Sambo’.

Part-time janitor Shintaro is the film’s featured protagonist, a dynamic and determined fighter who got his start in the ring dueling a fellow mentally challenged man over the affections of a female volunteer worker at a Tokyo center for the disabled. Although the outcome of the initial battle came with a double defeat where the young woman was concerned, Shintaro and his unnamed love rival develop a taste for adrenaline and challenge, a sensation too often denied to individuals deemed ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk’. Twenty years on, ‘Doglegs’ continues its legacy as a dissenting alternative to the ‘compassion” that hobbles the chances for disabled people to physically and emotionally engage with the world around them.

Doglegs the documentary is an unflinching, frequently disturbing (and more often hilarious) look at the people who risk life and limb in the ring to wage an uphill battle for autonomy and self-determination. It’s shock value derives from its unapologetic celebration of “weak” minds and bodies taking high risk free falls and the sexual/spiritual awakening that ensues from direct contact with a flesh and blood adversary. “Fight according to your pride” is the mantra that keeps the fighters in check and serves as the only ‘rule’ to an otherwise free-for-all Fight Club, where the real adversary is the marginalization that comes with second class status.

Bodies that are consigned to helplessness, cosseted, hidden and ultimately abhorred become autonomous, gravity defying symbols of personal struggle and social change. The rough and often brutalizing contact with fists and floors becomes a liberating and strength inducing catharsis these men seek to stake their place in the world. Despite the limitations society places upon them as an unseen and largely condescended to minority, these underdogs prove they are a force to be reckoned with on their own terms, even when able-bodied nemesis ‘Antithesis Kitajima’ (a one time volunteer at the center where Shintaro and his fellow fighters formed Doglegs) enters the ring with no a holds barred intent to thrash his opponents mercilessly.

Director Heath Cozens, a long-term Tokyo resident now based in New York City, came to this project with a long list of media credentials that lend the project an unfiltered and consciously artless format in keeping with its hardboiled, “unsuitable for all ages” subject matter. Cozens takes on a taboo subject that none of the news organizations he worked with could not or would not touch as subject matter for a newscast “human interest” segment, despite the group’s nearly urban legend status among the cognizenti of Tokyo’s underground scene. It took Cozens several years before the group responded to his polite requests to document their now twenty year battle to smash stereotypes and destroy the low expectations imposed on them by societal indifference, and even worse, “compassion”.

Cozens is an absent, yet unsparing observer. The film’s titular characters speak for themselves with the frank and often brutal assessment of their own chances at life in and out of the ring. Doglegs‘ “abled” advocates like Kitajima explain their own involvement in the project without ever lending their interpretation to the voices central to the film’s premise. Beneath the rough-hewn and somewhat menacing exterior of ‘Antithesis’; a villain who proudly boasts of “Beating up the disabled for twenty years” lies a shrewd philosopher on a mission to radically reconfigure society to enable its “loser dogs” to realize their potential. He’s not going to let Shintaro retire from fighting without first issuing his “diabolical” challenge to gamble his decision on the outcome of a final match. And Shintaro is not going to go down without delivering a final blow to the man standing in the way of his freedom. Viewers expecting ‘Patch Adams’ will have their hopes dashed with boiling oil and a chainsaw. To be clear, this is the film’s greatest strength; a refusal to submit a “life-affirming” narrative, often coming to blows with the low expectations of audience members expecting a Rocky Balboa outcome. Doglegs isn’t going to change your mind, but alter the perceptions behind certain belief systems at the molecular level. Doglegs demands its audience undergo the same ‘training’ as its protagonists, mocking weak-kneed aspiration in favor of a full-frontal assault against easy assumptions.

‘Antithesis Kitajima’ could very well be heir to the throne vacated by the late playwright, filmmaker, poet and sub-culture provocateur Terayama Shuji, who terrorized Tokyo in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s with his rogue band of theatre players ‘Tenjo Sajiki’ who boasted “perverts, gamblers and bicycle thieves” among its early ranks, and set out on a similar mission to free the imagination from the bourgeoisie stranglehold of home, hearth and country in post-war Japan. Terayama was an enthusiastic pugilist despite a weak physical disposition resulting from Hepatitis contracted in childhood, and died at 47 from as a direct result of a decades long battle with a terminal disease. Much of Terayama’s output was based on his own debilitating experiences with his neurotic mother intent on smothering him back into infantile dependency, and “killing mother” was a consistent underlying theme in his work. Doglegs, however, doesn’t seek audiences or even recognition beyond the immediate concerns of its fighters, even it it unconsciously at least, takes up Terayama’s clarion call for the unfettered imagination to take flight in the face of a “loving” adversary poised to strangle it in its crib. Shintaro’s own mother offers her own brutal assessment of her parenting skills as a young, single mother trying to raise a mentally challenged son. Her “harshness” she fears, have left lingering scars that will impede Shintaro further as advances through life without familiar caregivers.

Shintaro has successfully completed a program to qualify as a janitor and plans to live out the rest of his days gainfully employed in a vocation better suited to a man in middle age. Kitajima could jeopardize his chances of peaceful retirement from a demanding, ultimately dangerous sport. Kitajima himself is in his twilight years as a fighter (both in and out of the ring) and with the added responsibility of wife and child, can no longer sustain the demands of Doglegs. His gradual extrication from the group, and from Shintaro in particular, provides a weighty, emotional counterpoint to the deadpan absurdism Cozens captures in merciless detail. His cruel barbs at Shintaro, which Cozens wisely refrains from interpreting for his non-Japanese audience (“taking the piss” is part and parcel of local social norms) still cut as deeply as the visible wounds on the chronically depressed Nakajima, a self-cutter, whose inability to score a victory in the ring goads his despair and spirit in equal measure. Kitajima’s ultimatum is less a sadistic rallying cry for Shintaro’s inevitable defeat, but a call to arms against the forces of complacency that threaten to consign Shintaro to peaceful obscurity.

Shockingly, to some of the demure, well-heeled critics of Doglegs stateside, the volunteers assist their employers as non-regulatory bodies, serving booze on command to a dying cerebral palsy member who wants to exit this plane drunk and wearing lingerie. The group takes Shintaro to a sex museum in the resort town of Atami so he can reveal his romantic feelings for the university professor who advocates for them on an institutional level, while remaining a regular fixture ringside and in the group’s regular pub crawls. For the record, a night out with the members of Doglegs is no different than a night out with any group comprising Shinjuku’s hard drinking demimonde. The booze flows, the insults fly and a community is strengthened by an unparalleled camaraderie seldom found outside bars that serve up draft beer and tiny plates of boiled soybeans.

Along the way to Shintaro’s independent and well-considered decision to apply his hard-earned skills to a similarly challenging vocation, we meet Doglegs‘ alternately challenged and determined members. ‘L’Amant’ (The Lover) is in the throes of a deliberately induced alcohol poisoning, aided by his wife and caregivers who respect the dying man’s wishes to the extent of Mrs L’Amant (and even L’Amant Junior – a promising high school boxer) going into the ring and fighting each other to continue the old man’s legacy. There is no greater love, it turns out, than a mother and son slugging it out in the ring to pay tribute to an ideal personified in one man’s losing battle with life and the victory he has achieved in ending it on his own terms. Let’s just say that this particular scene is why waterproof mascara was invented. Our protagonists, however, have different ideas about ‘water works’ – allowing the camera a lingering shot inside L’Amant’s puke bucket, deferentially positioned to aid him in his quest for a sake-soaked funeral.

In the meantime, chronically and clinically depressed Nakajima bravely allows us a glimpse into his own world, exclusively peopled by the plush toys he has hoarded over a life time and now demand obeisance and blood offerings in the form of their hapless acolyte’s ritual offering of scars, worn proudly and defiantly on his chest. If Kitajima is the intellectual force behind Doglegs then Nakajima is his corporeal counterpoint – mutilating the only abled part of himself to balance his internal agonies. Even his diagnosis of cancer fails to elicit sympathy from his teammates, who are prepared to pulverize him in the ring to secure victory for themselves. It’s this bold acceptance of the blows that life deliver that ultimately keep Nakajima on his meds long enough to confront his next opponent from a plethora of inner demons.

Throughout every pitfall along his remarkable journey toward selfhood, Shintaro – the heart of this unforgettable film – navigates his transition from dependency to self-actualization with the courage befitting a champion fighter. As a trainee janitor freshly graduated from a literal school of hard knocks, he has applied a newly acquired a life that will undoubtedly deliver him a fresh set of blows. The poise and eventual confidence he demonstrates when mastering an industrial vacuum cleaner is every bit as captivating and breathe-bating as his attempts to wield supremacy over ‘Antithesis’ in the ring. This time, though, ‘Antithesis’ is a distant inner voice spurring him towards yet another hard-earned defeat.

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Jennifer Matsui is a writer living in Tokyo.

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