Censoring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
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.
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.