When Ralph Macchio first appeared on the big screen as Daniel LaRusso, decked out in his now trademark white Karate Gi uniform, he effectively ushered in a bold new era of children’s entertainment. 1984’s The Karate Kid wasn’t just director John G. Avildsen applying the uplifting sports movie formula that had worked so well on one of his previous efforts, Rocky, in a new kid friendly context; it was also a film that helped take martial arts into the Western mainstream.
Suddenly American and European kids were joining dojos in hopes of emulating “Daniel Son.” But The Karate Kid was not solely responsible for this newfound appreciation in martial arts. The years that followed also saw the emergence of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in popular culture.
Originally a comic book series created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, much like the heroes in a half shell, it had mutated into something much bigger. There were toys, an animated TV series, and any number of weird and wonderful bits of merchandise. This culminated in 1990 with the release of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. The film was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. However, in the UK it was also a source of some confusion and controversy. In fact, up until then, most British kids had never heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. No, to UK audiences, they had been known as the Teenage Mutant HERO Turtles.
To understand why, you have to go back to the early 1980s when a proliferation of low budget horror movies on VHS in the U.K. gave rise to what became known as the “Video Nasty.” First coined in 1982, the term was championed by religious organizations and pressure groups like the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, led by Mary Whitehouse, which campaigned against the broadcast and publication of content it considered harmful or offensive.
Whitehouse was an infamous hard-line Christian and social conservative concerned at what she saw as a move toward a more permissive society in the UK She and her followers were worried that while the British Board of Film Censorship kept close tabs on cinema releases, there was a lack of regulatory controls on the fast emerging video market and the plethora of low-budget horror films flooding the VHS market from the U.S. and Italy that featured sex, violence, and eye-popping amounts of gore. One concern in particular was that somehow one of these films might end up in the possession of children.
A tabloid feeding frenzy ensued with several self-serving politicians getting behind the cause, culminating in the introduction of the 1984’s Video Recordings Act in the UK, which was introduced the same year The Karate Kid was released and imposed a strict code of censorship on VHS releases.
The authorities also compiled a list of 72 films, most of which were horror movies, that were deemed at least potentially prosecutable under the Obscene Publications Act 1964, for “tending to corrupt or deprave persons” and included among them The Evil Dead and I Spit On Your Grave. The entire episode was a significant victory for the UK’s de facto moral majority at the time and, buoyed by its campaign’s success, they soon turned their attention to another target: martial arts.
The BBFC had previously expressed concern over the level of violence and array of weaponry depicted in the raft of martial arts movies that followed the emergence of Bruce Lee as a bona fide star, going as far as to remove any scenes from Enter the Dragon featuring nunchucks or “chain sticks,” as they were often referred to.
Now the press and politicians alike once latched on to the new moral panic being pushed by Whitehouse and her cohorts, resulting in a renewed attack on the genre and, in particular, the sale of ninja-adjacent weaponry such as samurai swords, the aforementioned nunchucks, and Shuriken throwing stars. Coming against the backdrop of 1980s Thatcherite Britain and a time when the government was attempting to get a handle on striking workers, social unrest, and a perceived culture of hooliganism around the country’s most popular sport, soccer, clamping down on the sale of ninja-style weaponry and the culture surrounding it seemed like an easy win.
In truth, it’s difficult to know how many of these weapons were actually sold to kids—most were available for purchase in shops and through mail order catalogs, making it tricky for youngsters to get their hands on unchecked—but the authorities nevertheless persisted.
By 1986, the Martial Arts Commission, under the guidance of the UK government, had established new guidelines for the sale of equipment designed to prevent it falling into the hands of minors. Two years later, 14 ninja-style weapons were banned in the UK, including swordsticks, blowpipes, footclaws, and knuckledusters to name just a few as part of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988.
While there were similar concerns over the popularity of ninja weapons among kids in the U.S. with the New York Times running a piece on the dangerous “throwing star” fad of the time, it never amounted to any formal legislation like what was seen in the UK. But that wasn’t enough for some. They didn’t just want to prevent kids from seeing or purchasing ninja weaponry; they wanted to ban the word “ninja” altogether, and one cartoon in particular was about to fall foul of this new crusade.
According to The Tribune Magazine, from as early as 1986, British politicians were raising concerns over “Ninja-style toys, which are marketed as suitable for children from the age of three upwards” that “when used, or adapted, can become an offensive weapon.” It was against this backdrop in January 1990 that the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series first aired in the UK, nearly three years on from its U.S. debut and with several notable changes.
The most obvious came with the name, which was updated to the seemingly more palatable Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. This, in turn, required the show’s intro sequence and iconic theme tune—written by Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre—also having to be altered significantly to remove any mention of ninjas. One of the most significant changes in the episodes themselves came with the character of Michaelangelo, who wielded nunchaku in the U.S. version of the cartoon. Rather than replace these weapons with a more acceptable alternative, however, censors opted to simply cut any sequences involving nunchucks altogether, reducing the character’s role in the process.
By the time the show’s fourth season rolled around, showrunners had taken the decision to replace the nunchaku with a “Turtle Line” grappling hook. Eager to avoid any further controversy whatsoever, the BBC also moved to excise any mentions of the word “ninja” while phrases like “let’s kick some shell” and “bummer” were also omitted. It was an odd decision, not least because the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics had been in circulation for several years by then, complete with the same vernacular, while the toy line featuring all of the quartet’s original weaponry had already hit the shelves.
The decision to remove the word “ninja” from all episodes didn’t just impact UK broadcasts either. The same edited versions of episodes also aired in countries like Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Norway. Though later iterations differed, the original run of episodes would only officially revert back from Hero Turtles to Ninja Turtles in 2009, following the release of the first two seasons on DVD.
The excessive censorship did little to put fans off though or calm the increasingly hysterical tabloid press. According to the Tribune, there were newspaper reports of four-year-olds karate kicking glass doors and kids attempting to imitate the heroes in a half shell by playing in sewers. One tabloid even warned that the show was turning children on to junk food like pizza. Though there’s little lasting evidence of any of the above (although pizza remains pretty popular), by the time the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie arrived on UK shores, name intact, some eight months after its U.S. release, the BBFC was ready with the scissors.
A reported one minute and 51 seconds of footage was ultimately cut from the movie with much of the omitted footage once again focused around Michaelangelo’s nunchucks. Though the original name was allowed to stay in place, the weapons were not, despite reports of a heated debate among censors, some of whom had shown the unedited version of the movie to their kid with little in the way of negative fallout, i.e. she wasn’t tempted to go out and buy nunchucks.
Arguably the biggest crime, however, concerned the treatment of the movie’s soundtrack song, “Turtle Power,” by hip hop duo Partners in Kryme, which was significantly reworked so that any mention of the word “ninja” was replaced with—yep, you guessed it—hero.
Several key moments, including a subplot about a young teen joining the Foot Clan army of martial arts soldiers were also rejigged in an effort to avoid appearing too much in favor of the dreaded ninja movement.
Ultimately, the more significant and most absurd cuts would be reserved for the film’s rushed sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, which took the franchise in a more kid-friendly direction. That didn’t stop the BBFC from getting involved in proceedings, leading to arguably the lowest point in the entire UK censorship saga when the decision was made to cut a scene in which Michaelangelo handled two sausages on string in a manner not entirely dissimilar to nunchucks.
The martial arts craze of the time had begun to die down by then though, with a series of inferior Karate Kid rip-offs like Three Ninjas and Surf Ninjas struggling to maintain the momentum created by Ralph Macchio who, himself, was then in his 30s. In the UK, the furore around content of this kind began to die down, with the country gradually moving toward a more permissive and free-thinking society. Well, in some respects at least.
Thankfully, Americans will never have to worry about conservatives, Christians, and pressure groups attempting to ban harmless material they deem inappropriate or offensive to children. Oh wait…