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Unarmed Michelangelo and a bunch of sausages: why British censorship forbade showing nunchucks in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The story of an ardent defender of "child safety" and the massive influence of Bruce Lee.

One of the most popular children’s shows about the adventures of four mutant turtles is considered the American animated series 1987-1996 “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” He turned a niche comic book story into a pop-cultural phenomenon, broadcasting in both Western and post-Soviet countries. For many children in Russia, the animated series was the first opportunity to get acquainted with the history of the four war turtles.

On Russian TV they showed an uncensored version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in translation. Children in the UK are less fortunate. Due to the censorship of the times of Bruce Lee, the country strictly treated the demonstration of the Nunchaku – Michelangelo’s main weapon. About how the unfolding conflict led to the emergence of a unique version of the cult cartoon, told the publication Tedium.

British Nunchaku censorship began with a movie with Bruce Lee. Authorities feared that children would be inspired by his example

The animated series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (also known as TMNT) appeared in 1987, but the story that led to its censorship in the UK begins in the era of films with Bruce Lee. In 1973, the premiere of the film “Dragon’s Exit” took place with the legendary kung fu master in the title role. The audience enthusiastically greeted the picture of the deadly fighting tournament on a secluded island, and critics for the next years noted the influence of the film on the world cinema culture.

The same film introduced many Americans and Europeans to Bruce Lee. The tragic death of the actor played a significant role in this – he died six days before the premiere of “The Exit of the Dragon”. However, in the UK regulators saw a problem in the film – with its cruelty, it inevitably attracted the attention of children, which, as adults seemed, could harm their psyche.

In 1975, the American James Ferman, who headed the British Film Classification Council, took on the task of solving this problem. This is a non-governmental organization that is responsible for censoring films and video games. The new boss wanted to let the authors as clearly as possible understand what can and cannot be shown on the screen. The first big sacrifice of the editors was The Dragon’s Exit, namely the demonstration of the nunchaku in it.

Throughout the film, Lee repeatedly uses this weapon in battle. For everyone who watched the picture, it was obvious that the nunchucks were one of the main elements of the film. This did not stop Ferman from censoring weapons in 1979. He backed up the decision with a consultation with the police, which admitted that criminals or ordinary teenagers, inspired by the film, could use the nunchucks in real life.

The official was not embarrassed that more than six years had passed since the ban on the release of the film. Many adults and children remembered the original version; video stores sold thousands of copies of the painting.

Censored version of the poster “Exit the Dragon” – instead of the nunchaku, the hero Lee holds a stick

In 1984, the legacy of Bruce Lee and the “Exit of the Dragon” found expression in a completely strange way. At that time, two American artists, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, were in poverty without work in Massachusetts. In the absence of money and better prospects, they thought about creating a superhero comic book.

“If Bruce Lee were an animal, what would be the strangest image that would suit him? I decided to put together quick martial arts techniques and a slow turtle, ” Eastman said . So the four ninja turtles appeared, armed with two samurai swords (Leonardo), a pair of sai (Rafael), a pole (Donatello) and nunchaku (Michelangelo).

Controversial bans hit the Turtles, but the head of the censorship department only increased pressure

In 1987, three years after the release of the comic books about turtles, an animated series about them appeared on television. He quickly gained popularity and launched a fashion for such children’s and teenage stories, among them “Street Sharks” and “Mouse Bikers from Mars”. However, the British censors had their own vision of the situation. The ban of the nunchucks in “The Exit of the Dragons” created a precedent that provoked new bans.

Rambo was censored: Bowie’s knife, which the main character used, was cut out of the film. At the same time, the sanction did not extend to reality – weapons were freely sold in special stores. After that, censorship in the movie began for brass knuckles, shuriken, gloves with metal claws (appear in the Dragon’s Way Out), butterfly knives, crossbows and other weapons. But the nunchucks got more than others.

For the British box office, the authors of the American comedy film “Networks of Evil” cut out the scene with the nunchucks, although they are less than 30 seconds in the frame

All these limitations created a situation in which the animated series about ninja turtles, originally called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, was called Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in the UK. If they followed British censors in Russia, they probably would have translated it as “Hero Turtles.”

To better understand the essence, it is enough to compare the original screensaver of the show with the British version. The last one cuts out several scenes where Michelangelo uses the nunchucks, although they are still visible there, and instead of the “ninja”, “heroes” sing behind the scenes.

The British regulator explained the motive to prohibit the use of the word “ninja” by the fact that it is associated with violence. By the same logic, instead of the usual nunchucks, Michelangelo began to use a cat hook in battle.

The most meaningless element of censorship happened with respect to the nunchucks. Compared to the weapons of other turtles, Mikey seems to be the least aggressive. If the members of the commission were so worried about the general harm that the weapon might cause, first of all they should think about the swords of Leonardo.

of the fan material censorship “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”

Pressure from regulators led to the fact that after the third season the turtles began to use weapons at times less. For the animated series about the battles of turtles with the forces of evil, this was not the best solution, but it solved the problem of the countless edits that were made in each episode for censorship.

The Ferman Commission did not stop there, intervening in the British movie rental about turtles. Moreover, the actions of the regulator did not always correspond to their own requirements. In 1990, the first full-length film about the heroes called “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was released in Great Britain, ignoring the television name.

This did not stop the censors from cutting out all the frames with the nunchucks from the film, essentially minimizing the role of Michelangelo in the story and sometimes violating the logic of the story. The media even wrote about the complaints of children who admitted that censorship spoiled the entire film for them

A censored version of the battle of turtles with a ninja, which was also shown in German cinemas. 
From it cut frames where Michelangelo competes with an opponent in the art of mastering the nunchucks

Many members of the commission, led by Ferman, considered this form of censorship ineffective, given that in addition to the nunchakus, the show had enough dangerous weapons. The head of the regulator promised to consider this issue and, if necessary, change the conditions, but this did not happen.

Moreover, from the second part of the film, in which Michelangelo hardly used the nunchucks, part of the initial battle was removed. In it, Michelangelo jokingly attacks the criminals with a bunch of sausages, similar to nunchucks. Despite the absurdity, Ferman insisted that the scene should not be allowed into the British box office, as “any eight-year-old street child” will perceive a bunch of sausages as a weapon.

Ferman’s policy was not limited to fighting weapons. With the same zeal, he fought with a demonstration of violence in the cinema, which is why “Reservoir Dogs” went to the British video box only two years after the premiere. And the director didn’t let the exorcist into the video rental at all. The film got there only after the resignation of Ferman in 1999.

In Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain, Irish writer Tom Matthew describes how strongly Ferman believed in the effectiveness of a screen-ban policy. After his departure, the regulator became much more liberal, and a few years later the nunchucks returned both to the animated series about Turtles and to feature films.

In an attempt to convince the director of the erroneousness of his path regarding the Nunchaks, a member of the commission went to extreme measures. In the middle of one of the meetings of the Weapons Council, he reached into his pocket and took out the nunchucks. He began to swing them above his head, but, unfortunately, the chain immediately caught on his neck, and he almost strangled himself.

But even after this demonstration of the capabilities of weapons in the hands of amateur enthusiasts, Ferman remained at his side. In annoyance, experts told him that there was no evidence from the police or the courts that over the years, someone in the UK had used this weapon. “You see, this proves the success of my policy,” the director calmly answered.

from Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain

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