The Strange Plot To Strip The Ninja Turtles Of Their Weapons
If you were a child in Britain in the 1990s, and you liked watching cartoons about Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael, you did not watch a show titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Over there, it was called Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. This name switch ruined the original title's gloriously absurd collection of adjectives—but then, none of us picked up on that absurdity anyway when we were kids and heard the name for the first time.
Britain used a different name to avoid the violent implications of ninjas. For that same reason, Michelangelo had no nunchucks in Britain. Either he'd carry one solid stick, or something would pop up to cover whatever he was wielding.
This censorship didn't make much sense, even using censor logic. In the theme song above, the turtles are fighting all kinds of opponents, so removing the word "ninja" doesn't remove the violence. In fact, the British theme song replaces the word "ninja" with "fighter" at one point, and we're pretty sure fighters must engage in violence, even more so than ninjas.
And what's the point in censoring nunchaku while leaving in other weapons, like sticks without chains, or like swords? If we're worried about the effect on children, kids likely will have no way of ever encountering nunchucks in real life, but they could easily get their hands on swords, since all British homes by law must keep crossed swords over the mantle.
It turns out British censors at the time objected to ninjas in particular, rather than violence in general. This goes back to a supposed wave of British nunchuck street crimes in the '70s. British censors blamed the crimes on the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, the sort of causal link that censors believe in with strong faith. They went and removed nunchucks from Enter the Dragon for the VHS release, removed it from the poster, and even removed shots of the uncensored Dragon poster from the background of shots in unrelated later films.
Ninja gear now joined a specific and arbitrary list of weapons that must not appear in films (and censors also applied this standard to other media, though not as rigidly). The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie went to Britain with its original title intact, weirdly, but with all nunchucks snipped out. The sequel, Secret of the Ooze, shows Michelangelo swinging some sausages early on, miming the use of nunchucku as a joke. British censors cut even this out.
America had its own worries about turtles, we should mention. We dug up one 1990 story that talks about daycares banning all TMNT attire and toys to discourage kids from karate chopping each other. More lenient child advocates suggested that "playing turtles" was no more harmful than the kinds of play fighting kids have always enjoyed. Though, they might have been interested to learn that a generation or two later, people would all be cool with ninja turtles but would have some serious thoughts about the alternatives that 1990 called wholesome: "the cowboy-and-Indian games of yesteryear."
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