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The ninja has a long history of being romanticized by the film industry, but no pop culture representation has proved more prominent than in the case of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or TMNT.
These four reptiles and their rodent instructor have been consistently criticized since their inception in the 1980’s, for misrepresentation of their martial art, which is officially defined by the cartoon’s creators as “Ninjutsu.”
The Adaptive Art
Much of the criticism pertains to the lack of structure in the training regimen and techniques of the heroes, but this in fact may serve to confirm the truth of their discipline. Ninjutsu is a largely undefined and adaptive art.
“Ninjutsu, or ninpo, is a collection of adaptable survival techniques that allows one to face the uncertainties of life and to respond to dangerous situations, through physical and psychological discipline, where one uses orthodox weapons in unorthodox ways.”
– Dr. Kacem Zhoughari
Living in depths New York sewer system, the turtles learned to navigate the city in certainly unorthodox ways. In similar fashion, Ninja (Shinobi) have historically been known for their ability to travel unseen by their opponents. It is this art of secrecy that has served to enhance the mysterious perception of the ninja.
The weapons used by the TMNT are not fictional, but based on those that are considered traditional by Ninjustu as well as other martial arts practitioners. Each character has their own weapon of choice.
Ninjaken– The ninjaken is wielded by the TMNT leader, who goes by the name Leonardo. This weapon is a long bladed sword that is represented by warrior classes throughout Japanese history. It is commonly confused with the katana, which is similar in length and style, but has a curved blade rather than the straight blade of the ninjaken.
Bo– Donatello is the turtle credited with being the brains of the group. His weapon of choice is a long wooden staff called a bo. It is a versatile weapon used to both defend and attack while keeping an opponent at a distance.
Nunchaku– The nunchaku is a weapon formed of two hard but small wooden handles linked together by a metal chain. The nunchaku requires a high level of skill and coordination to control without injuring oneself and is the choice armament of Michelangelo. This weapon is used throughout a number of marital arts, one of the most popular being Kobudo.
Sai– The sai is also popular in Kobudo and is used by turtle Raphael. It is often mistaken for a dagger and they are usually carried in pairs, which are known as saitachi. The sai originated in Okinawa and is used for blocking and trapping the weapon of an opponent, while the other is used mostly for striking.
Other weapons used by the TMNT include:
The foundation of the art is undoubtedly found in the demeanor of sensei “Splinter” who is a mutated rat. The official portrayal of the fictional characters describes Master Splinter in the following way:
“The fact that he (Splinter) has gone through decades of ninja training does not only mean that he is fearsome when he fights, but that he is also remarkably in tune with the universe.”
This concept of being in tune with the universe may be the most convincing argument for the TMNT practice of Ninjutsu.
“Looking for the meaning of life, one man can discover the order of the universe. To discover the truth, to achieve. a higher spiritual state, that is the true meaning of ninja.”- Soke Masaaki Hatsumi
Originally from Japan, Splinter is the disciple of a great Ninjutsu master. His traditional outlook on training and discipline is responsible for the great success of the TMNT fighting style. The art of Ninjutsu is second nature to Splinter and despite his age and frail appearance, his years of experience and dedication make him a superior opponent to his young students.
His teaching methods are also designed to encourage adaptability. In one episode, he took away all of the Turtles’ weapons, forcing them to learn to fight outside of their typical environment.
One area in which the TMNT are vastly different from traditional Shinobi is in their ability to finish the fight. Ninjutsu is not a competition sport. There is no winning or losing. There is only survival, severe damage or execution. For obvious reasons, this is not conducive to a mainstream children’s cartoon. Thus the “bad guys” live to fight again next week.
Despite their misgivings, these cartoon heroes have introduced multiple generations to the idea of Ninjutsu (if not the actual art) and inspired curiosity among the masses. Each of the characters and plots, though undoubtedly flawed, in their genuine representation of the Ninja does provide unique insight to the ways of budo in a way that only talking pizza-eating, crime fighting turtles can.
The pop culture Ninja – if he is not a faceless bad guy – is typically a heroic sort. In stark contrast to the grim necessity which spawned their namesakes, these Ninja selflessly battle crime, usually in the Batman mould. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a case in point, at least in their cartoon incarnation.
From their comic book origins to their cinematic grave, the Turtles straddle the complete range of modern Ninja representations. Spawned as gritty, violent, isolated creatures, battling a gang of organized criminals, led by their sensei’s old nemesis, they become a bunch of goody-two-shoes martial arts crime fighters, who seem quite unwilling to put in the extra distance to make sure their foes do not just come back next week and try to kill them again. In fairness, this is perhaps because you can’t have the heroes chase down and kill the fleeing villain for a children’s cartoon, let alone poison his food and water without being seen. Likewise, from being brutal and devious warriors, they adopted the hampering, sweeping Hollywood honour code.
Perhaps the main thing that TMNT and their ilk show us was that the ‘real’ Ninja has not had a heroic place in mainstream cinema. The brutal ethos which served them in the harsh feudal society of medieval Japan sits uneasily in the context of a modern world but Ninjutsu evolves, refines, and lives on.