Home Blog Censoring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Censoring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

by Justin W

With the boon in popularity for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the United States during the late 1980’s, it was only a matter of time before necessity dictated taking a shot at the entire world.  Fortunately, there were plenty of countries willing to cash in on the success.  In Japan, the first cartoon series was given an anime makeover after the original episodes came to an end, with The Great Crisis of the Super Turtles and The Coming of the Guardian Beasts setting up two very unique story- and toy lines in that country.  However, not every international release saw the same wholehearted embrace of everything TMNT.

When the show was pitched to networks in the United Kingdom and Ireland, there was a big problem.  Local censorship rules dictated that the word “ninja” had too many violent connotations and had to be changed.  So Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.  Every instance of “ninja” was changed, from episode dialogue to the line in the opening theme.  But it didn’t stop there.

There was also an issue with Michelangelo’s nunchaku.  This particular weapon was banned from all movies and television shows at the time in the UK, which presented a bit of a problem since it was Mikey’s signature hardware.  To circumvent this critique, the show creators took it upon themselves to remove the nunchaku entirely from season three, replacing them with a grappling hook (the “turtle line”), and the use of weapons as a whole would be toned down considerably.  As such, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles was finally set to air in the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as German-speaking countries.

Outside of those areas, the show was also shopped in Italy, Spain, and Portugal.  Minor edits were made for dialogue and local television standards, but the “ninja” remained, as did the nunchaku.  By the time the 2003 series was created and the DVDs for the 1987 series were released, the censorship rules in the UK had disappeared, and ninja and nunchaku were allowed.

 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Michelangelo Not Fighting

Censorship is always a tricky subject.  When it comes to speech and expression, Americans are used to having virtually free reign to say and do whatever they choose (minus a few prohibitions).  So it’s odd when another country replaces a word like “ninja”.  It makes sense in a way; ninja are historically violent, dictated by their roles as assassins.  However, history aside, there’s no reason at all to think that this particular show was violent, and censorship without context is always a problem.  Of course, if it was a blanket prohibition on several similar “violent” words and images, then that’s a different story.

The aspect that doesn’t make much sense at all is the nunchaku.  Of all the individual weapons, Mikey’s seems like the least violent.  If they were worried about the overall damage that could be caused, Leonardo’s swords should have been at the top of the list.  Yes, use of the weapons was toned down in general over time, so they were essentially there for presentation’s sake, and not actual use.  But two swords seem a lot more violent than nunchaku.  The replacement for that weapon also seems a bit questionable.  Of the weapons that could have been substituted, why choose a grappling hook?  What was it about nunchaku that was so questionable? If it was just that weapon, why not change it to a kusarigama (as bladed weapons were apparently okay)?  Or perhaps adopting tonfa instead (which was the change made in TMNT: The Next Mutation)?  The underlying reasons for these particular edits may never be truly known to the American audience.

Censorship plays a big role in television in all countries, and while some of the rules don’t make sense to outside observers, they all exist for a reason.  While the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles felt a government’s hand just like everything else, the show adapted appropriately, and continued to be a success.  With the rules removed, the boys can now be “ninja teens” all over the world.

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Sharkmanta May 30, 2013 - 11:47 am

True…in England they are known as the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.

Melanie May 31, 2013 - 3:37 pm

yeah i got the theme with the tmnt sound app (all of them up til 2003) and it says TMHT instead

J May 30, 2013 - 11:59 am

The nunchaku where probably censored as they are much easier to damage yourself with than any of the rest, you can pick up a fake sword and swing it around and feel bad ass, the same with any stick, the sai you can just can just point and feel awesome but nunchaku are notoriously tricky and without training tend to result in smacking yourself in the face.

admin May 30, 2013 - 12:25 pm

Mishandling nunchucks has happened to most users, good point dude!

ThePhantomArtist May 30, 2013 - 1:26 pm

IIRC, the reason for the removal of the nunchuks is that they could be very easily made from a broom handle sawn into sections and a small length of chain and some ‘U’ nails – the other weapons couldn’t. I could be wrong (it’s over 20 years ago now) but that’s how I remember it.

Mark Pellegrini May 30, 2013 - 12:34 pm

Season 3 was strange in its nunchaku censorship. I don’t think all the different animation studios working on that season got the same memo. The Japanese studio that did episodes like “Turtles on Trial” and “Zach the Fifth Turtle” showed Michelangelo brandishing his ‘chuks (but never using them) while other studios showed them perpetually strapped to his belt, if never released (I guess they were a part of his character model sheet and the animators in Korea and elsewhere didn’t know any better, even after the storyboard artists in the US stopped having Michelangelo use them in hand).

The weirdest bit of censorship was in “Burne’s Blues”, an early season 3 episode, where Michelangelo reaches over to his belt, pulls out an imaginary object and is then seen gripping thin air. The obvious explanation is that the animation was changed at the last minute to remove the nunchakus, but that sort of censorship wasn’t applied to other episodes that season (where Michelangelo was stilled permitted to hold them, but never use them).

It was a strange, sloppy situation.

On the subject of word censorship, is “war” still forbidden from appearing in the titles of children’s cartoons in Canada? As I understand it, “War Planets” was called “Shadow Raiders” and “Beast Wars” was called “Beasties” in Canada (despite both shows having been animated in Canada by Mainframe).

Then there’s cultural and regional issues when it comes to slang terms. Transformers can’t name characters “Slag” or “Spaz” anymore, at least if they want those products to be marketed in the UK, due to slang terms. Likewise, the word “fag” means something completely different (and inoffensive) in the UK whereas, out of context, it’s a slur in America.

Censorship can be a very silly and complicated thing.

admin May 30, 2013 - 12:43 pm

Very well said Mark!!

tyron June 2, 2013 - 5:30 pm

we need a darker tmnt show movie and video games.

Michele Ivey June 5, 2013 - 10:34 am

One of the reasons that Michaelangelo’s nunchucks were so bad is because they are the easiest weapon to hide upon yourself. And if you use the chucks with the strings, and not the chains it’s even easier. You can walk through metal detectors and not be caught.

Don and Leo’s swords are way to long for this, and even sais are bigger than they’re drawn in the original series. Because of this, these weapons are not as much of a threat since people can’t get away with just walking around with them. Even though a bo staff could be anything from a walking stick, broom, rack to a cane. It still can not be hidden so it’s not a surprise attack if you’re carrying something as big as a staff.

I’m trying to remember who explained that to me, but I know this was something I learned back in the 90’s when asking around why Mike’s chucks were the weapon removed.

I was thrilled when the 4Kids series brought back his chucks! 🙂

admin June 6, 2013 - 9:41 am

Good explanation Michele!

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