Today in Tedium: There’s a platform in the first home console version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that throws everyone off. With a narrow hole and a low ceiling, it was seemingly designed to be as difficult as possible to jump across, to turn what was a five-second leap into a 10-minute exercise in frustration. It changed the entire way you played the game, honestly: Despite the fact you knew the jump technically wasn’t necessary to play the game, you put all your energy toward crossing that divide, rather than actually enjoying the game itself. You never asked if it was worth it, even when you should have. (And then it turns out … you can just walk over it!) There was actually a similarly odd exercise in futility involving the TV show on which the game was based, where aspirations of global success led the producers to change the entire show—all because of one country’s aggressive, yet specific, approach to censorship. Today’s Tedium talks about why British kids grew up with Hero Turtles, rather than Ninja Turtles—and why Michelangelo’s weapon was a big part of the problem. — Ernie @ Tedium
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Enter the Dragon unwittingly primed the British film industry for a period of aggressive censorship
The story of the censorship of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, if you really break it down, starts in 1973, when a film jointly produced in the U.S. and Hong Kong turned martial arts films into a mainstream Western phenomenon.
That movie, Enter the Dragon, introduced many American audiences to Bruce Lee, who translated his early appearances on the American show The Green Hornet, one of the first showcases for martial arts in mainstream Western media, into major success abroad. Lee’s films targeting the Asian market had generated so much buzz that the American film industry effectively came to him, putting massive money behind Enter the Dragon’s marketing campaign.
The only problem, sadly, was that Lee had died only a month before the release of the 1973 film under what remain hazy circumstances. Nonetheless, the tragedy didn’t stop the film’s release—and Enter the Dragon, which promised to be the starting point for a major career, became a posthumous hit that inspired multiple genres of film. Lee died knowing he was a star, but only later did he become an icon, the kind of action star that budding filmmakers study.
The problem is that the film, successful as it was, was both very violent and naturally appealing to kids—the kind of thing ratings systems are made for. And Enter the Dragon inspired a lot of censorship, particularly in the United Kingdom, where the British Board of Film Classification, effectively the country’s version of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system, required a handful of cuts upon its release. But the interesting thing is that they kept revisiting the film, in part because of real-life hooligan violence that seemed directly inspired by the film.
This scrutiny picked up thanks to an American-born director who lived in the UK most of his adult life and eventually became the country’s primary cultural censor.
For nearly a quarter century, James Ferman was the primary figurehead of the BBFC. During the last quarter of the 20th century, Ferman came to have possibly a deeper influence on British popular culture than possibly any other person living in the country at the time. This was in part because he made a stronger effort to make clear to British filmmakers what wasn’t going to fly.
“The whole business of film censorship is a legal muddle and needs to be straightened out,” he said in 1975, just before taking the role.
Dragon-inspired violence picked up in Britain right around the time that Ferman had become well-established in his role—and despite missing the release of Bruce Lee’s most popular film by roughly two years, he still recalled Enter the Dragon from the market in 1979.
A primary target of Ferman’s interest was the nunchaku, or nunchucks. A relatively obscure weapon in the Western world before the 1970s, Lee had used it in his films and gained an affinity for the weapon, meaning that many film fans got their introduction with Lee’s dramatic use of nunchaku throughout Dragon.
Ferman, acting on the advice of law enforcement, had it taken out of the film entirely, leading to a poster that had replaced the chainstick with a solid stick. No matter that the film had already been released for more than half a decade by this point and a whole generation of British kids had already seen Lee prominently use the nunchucks.
“These changes were arguably a case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted, given that film had been widely available for some time with all of the nunchaku footage intact,” podcaster Gavin Salkeld explained on the website for his podcast Cutting Edge, which examines film censorship by the BBFC.
But there were still plenty of horses to keep in the stable. Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
“If Bruce Lee was an animal, what would be the most ridiculous? I thought, take a fast martial artist and a slow moving turtle.”
— Kevin Eastman, the co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles , explaining in a 2017 interview the basic spark of inspiration that led to the Turtles concept. At the time of the spark, neither Eastman nor fellow co-creator Peter Laird had jobs, and they decided to launch a comic-book company called Mirage Studios. That odd bit of inspiration proved immensely important, however—because within a few years, the comic book series would give way to role-playing board games, to toy figurines, to animated TV shows, to movies. To think of this another way, Eastman and Laird were the very kind of kids who watched Bruce Lee movies, and rather than generating something aggressively violent, they were inspired to create another work of art that was even more appealing to kids.
How British censorship significantly affected the way a major American cartoon franchise was made
It may have aired around breakfast time, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came to dominate the American cartoon scene seemingly overnight. With a mixture of fully formed characters, an unusual concept, and slick packaging, it seemed like nothing else on air at the time—but also perfectly of its era.
It took a few things that were already starting to pick up mainstream cultural interest and combined them into a single show. And it the concept took from seemingly everywhere that an 11-year-old boy might care about—the very creation of the turtles touched on timely environmental issues, while the ninja storylines embraced the growing popularity of kung fu movies, and the turtles loved pizza (and were coincidentally named after Renaissance painters—see, fun and learning!). It was like a melting pot of cartoon concepts wrapped up in a single highly marketable half-hour.
But it was very much an American mishmash. It reflected all of the concepts it touched on in a not-quite-exact way, turning numerous cultural touchstones into its own. But over time, the approach got away from the action elements that attracted kids in the first place. From a distance, some of that might just seem a part of a general dumbing-down of animated television in the 1980s and 1990s.
But in reality, it may have been a direct side effect of its globalization.
See, perhaps without even realizing it, Eastman and Laird had created the perfect target for British censorship in the late 1980s—effectively because what they had created had borrowed so much from Bruce Lee.
In the 2000 book Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain, author Tom Dewe Matthews lays out a situation in which the spark of responsibility that led to the removal of nunchucks in Enter the Dragon soon created instances in which fully legal weapons—such as Bowie knives, used in the first two Rambo movies—were removed from the screen. By the late 1980s, the list was long and diverse:
Presumably due to its lack of military sanction, if not its legality, the Rambo knife then joined what was a growing list of prohibited weapons on the screen. These now comprised Ninja Death Stars, spiked knuckledusters, metal claws, butterfly knives, lighted aerosols, crossbows, and telescopic catapults. But what had begun as a reasonable as well as a politically sensible response to actual incidents in which people were harmed, now entered the realms of the surreal.
The chainstick got seemingly more attention than anything else, though. Ferman’s fixation on nunchucks went unnoticed by the media, even after the 1979 recall of Enter the Dragon. That changed, however, in 1989, when the ’80s remake of Dragnet was censored after a single frame of the film was removed because it contained nunchucks.
The physical devices weren’t even used in the film—it was literally on a poster of Enter the Dragon, and far more dangerous weapons, such as guns, found their way into the cast’s hands—but the mere sight of nunchucks, even in passing, was enough to force an edit.
All of this created an unusual situation when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—or should I say Teenage Mutant HERO Turtles—hit the market.
The easiest way for me to explain this is to go to the tape. Here’s the original intro to the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
The key things to watch for including to way the logo is used, how Michelangelo uses his nunchucks, and the way the name is sung.
Now, compare that to the British version, which aired on the BBC during the 1990s:
You’ll see right away that the theme song (cowritten by Chuck Lorre, true story) is awkwardly modified to make room for local interests, but the really weird part is the overly aggressive way in which Michelangelo’s nunchucks keep getting covered up. And the logo treatment feels literally tacked on.
Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, while a huge hit in the U.K. market, added complications to the way the show was produced in the rest of the world—as the British version of the show would not allow nunchaku to appear with Michelangelo, and it would literally remove every reference to ”ninjas,” a term that carried violent connotations.
Justin Wren, a writer focused on the Turtles, noted that the censorship of the nunchucks in particular seemed a bit backwards in an article about the series:
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.
This was a lot to ask of a show that was built around ninjas. Rather than run into an editing disaster with every episode, the entire show began to de-emphasize weapons entirely, starting with the third season. As the show had long played up comedic elements of the concept, they still had plenty to work with, even if it meant that one of the original draws of the Turtles was scaled back significantly.
While the animated show that rocketed the franchise into the mainstream was never under the purview of Ferman, he clearly had influenced the way the show was produced by creating a standard that was then translated to television.
He was still making quite a mess of things for the Turtles at the box office, though.
The live-action Ninja Turtles movies led to some of the most absurd decision-making in James Ferman’s career
Even if James Ferman of the BBFC wasn’t involved in the censorship of the TV series, there were multiple films, and the decision-making on each of them gave critics of his heavy-handed approach to censorship a lot to work with.
The first film, which was confusingly called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the United Kingdom despite the “hero turtles” nomenclature on television, had received significant cuts at the insistence of Ferman, who insisted on the removal of “all clear sight of chainsticks,” a decision that apparently was controversial enough after the fact that the board had a lengthy debate about whether they should roll back the nunchucks standard, with regulator Richard Falcon noting that his nephews felt the removal of the nunchucks ruined the film, according to The Guardian.
Most of the board agreed that the rule needed to be changed, as it no longer made sense, especially given the fact that there were numerous other seemingly more dangerous weapons in the film.
Ferman agreed to look into the issue … but never did.
The sequel, however, made the stance look downright comical. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, which was even milder than the original film, didn’t even really use nunchucks, but instead sausages that looked like nunchucks.
But Ferman stood strong, insisting cuts of the scene out of concern that the sausages would look like weapons “to any streetwise 8 year old.”
Ferman would not budge on the stupid nunchucks. As one particular passage from Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain makes clear, the censor’s distaste for the weapons knew no bounds:
In an attempt to swerve the Director from his chosen path of non-nunchaku, an examiner now decided that extreme steps had to be taken. Halfway through one of the Board’s meetings on weaponry he reached into his pocket and slyly produced a pair of the dreaded chainsticks. He then started to swing them around above his head but unfortunately the chain immediately got caught around his neck and the examiner nearly strangled himself. But even after this peerless demonstration of the weapon’s self-destructive capability in the hands of an enthusiastic amateur, Ferman was still not persuaded to desist. Finally, in exasperation, the examiners told him that there was no evidence from the police or the courts that the weapon had been used for years. “Aaah,” replied the imperturbable Director, “that shows the success of my policy.”
Ferman was a notably controversial figure, having made many decisions during his time with the BBFC that seemed to be based on personal taste rather than logical sense. His many obituaries after his 2002 passing seemed utterly confused about how to perceive a man who insisted on aggressive cuts to Raiders of the Lost Ark and an overly tough rating on Mrs. Doubtfire but was totally cool with allowing a cut-free version of David Cronenberg’s Crash, a film about people who take erotic pleasure in car crashes.
His legacy, years later, is a nonsensical one. The ink was barely dry on the obits by the time that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Enter the Dragon were allowed to re-enter the British DVD market—nunchucks in hand.
Censorship has a very strange effect on the way that we create. It forces us to work around the thing being censored, even when it’s clearly obvious the thing being censored is kind of absurd—or even when we accept the reasons why we’re being censored.
I compare it to the way that many recent blockbusters have integrated elements of Chinese culture into their films, including plotlines that get added to show the country in a positive light—with a clear financial incentive for doing so.
Some of the pressure of censorship comes from bodies focused on ratings, while some of it is social. But, in the right context—i.e. when not having to work around a single censor’s arbitrary opinions on nunchucks—it can even be creatively empowering.
As it turns out, the animated version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a great example of this—a show that had to work around restrictive standards for what children could watch, both at home and abroad, and thrived because of it.
Animation executive Fred Wolf, who headed Murakami Wolf Swenson, the studio that produced the Turtles series, noted in a 1991 Washington Post interview that, when forced to make changes for the U.K. market, his company had already worked hard to de-emphasize the darker themes of the original comic, and the needs of the international market simply led them further down that road. While Michelangelo could carry nunchucks in the U.S. version of the show by that point, he couldn’t actually use them.
“We don’t break glass, we don’t bop people on the head, and if they’re going to hop into a vehicle, they put on a seat belt,” he explained, adding that syndication further forced the issue.
He explained the studio’s approach as such: It would take edgy properties such as the Turtles and make them palatable to mass audiences, something that, at the time, the studio was trying to do with the Troma Entertainment property The Toxic Avenger, which it renamed Toxic Crusaders.
“I have to sell what’s sensational about the show, then hold the reins on it and protect the kids,” Wolf explained. “We have a lot of power, but it’s a mistake to believe that power can be translated from the entertainment world to a message.”
There’s a right way and a wrong way to approach the creation of content around a community standard. Making the edgy workable in a kid-friendly context feels like the right way.