Teenage Mutant Ninja Origins Part 3: The Anime

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sorry guys but due to real life commitments this week’s scheduled look at the first TMNT movie is pushed back to next week and instead today we’re looking at the anime, enjoy.

As regular readers of this blog may know I lived in Japan for three years. As a video game and anime fan for many years prior to moving there I had a few preconceived notions about the country and its culture and actually living there shattered many of my preconceptions.

The main one being that I though Japan was the weirdest country on the face of the earth where the streets were lined with used panty vending machines, every TV show was a sadistic game show and women dressed as video game characters roamed the streets freely. Sadly the internet lied to me and continues to do so as even now a good 30% of the internet is devoted entirely to websites saying some variation of “Oh Japan, you so crazy.”* Including mummyboon itself at times. (Although my Japanese weirdness is 100% guaranteed eye witness real)

But Japan is depressingly normal for the most part and what incredibly bizarre things do crop up can often be explained and understood with the provision of a little context.

Let’s apply that context to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles anime or Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend. An original straight to video production consisting of two episodes that rejoice in the titles “The Great Crisis of the Super Turtles! The Saint Appears!”  and “The Coming of the Guardian Beasts – The Metal Turtles Appear!”

I’ve actually written about the anime on this site very briefly before where I described them as basically the most stereotypical Japanese thing imaginable cramming every cliche of Japanese pop culture into one incredibly insane package. I imagined that some executive took one look at anthropomorphic ninja turtles and decided, nah, needs more combining to form a giant robot.

But let’s instead examine why that might be the case.

American cartoons are very rarely successful in Japan. There are a variety of reasons for this both cultural and economic. In the main it’s because economic pressures force Japanese television stations to show predominantly Japanese produced content, foreign content is mostly banished to satellite and cable with a few exceptions. However if a foreign show has the financial backing of a Japanese company (in the case of the 1987 TMNT cartoon this was Takara who helped produce the toys) it can be allowed on a Japanese network.

However, even if it gets shown humour and storytelling conventions don’t always translate and regardless of the quality of the original show if the dub is done poorly then it will be regarded as a poor show.

So the 1987 TMNT show faced a lot of barriers to becoming a hit in Japan. Despite these issues it was a monster hit. Although not as popular as it was in Europe or America TMNT was a big deal in Japan in the 90’s.

There are a lot of reasons why this shouldn’t be. There were three competing dubs on the market for starters which confused casual fans. Also all three of the dubs chopped and changed episodes and showed them out of order ruining any continuity or any story arcs, again a barrier to enjoyment for a casual fan. Also the central conceit was two American guys doing a parody of Japanese culture and not a particularly well informed parody at that. For example Oroku Saki and Hamato Yoshi sound Japanese to a western ear but to a Japanese person they sound as authentic as two characters called Smith Jonny Johnson and Butch Rockhammer would to an American audience.

But what does work for Japanese people is the tone. The mix of slapstick, parody, light hearted humour and serious dramatic action storytelling is something Japan has always been fond of and has excelled in for years. Seriously look at any anime that is popular in Japan (Atom Boy, Naruto, One Piece and not exactly anime but any super-sentai show) and you’ll see many similarities with the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon.

Obviously, when working with dubbing you aren’t going to change too much of the story or the characterisation. You need to keep the plot roughly similar in order to use the existing animation that you’ve bought. So there were no changes to the origin, characters, motivations, etc from the 1987 cartoon when adapting it to Japanese tastes.  But there were some changes. In the most popular of the three dubs (which shares its voice talent with the OVA we’re discussing) the comedy was played up even further with a lot of ad-libbing to the extent that characters would be talking even when the animation clearly showed their mouths were shut. Some names were changed too. Shredder goes from Oroku Saki (which, um, is a girl’s name) to Oroku Sawaki and Splinter goes from Hamato Yoshi to Yoshihama Takeshi. The voice acting also changed some personalities a little so Donatello becomes quite manly whereas Raphael is weirdly effeminate. Shredder becomes a lot more put upon and complaining and Krang, ye gods Krang. The original Krang had a bizarre voice with weird grunts and burps and was very high pitched. The Japanese Krang however sounds like an angle grinder. It’s pitched so high that many of his lines can only be heard by dogs. Yet it’s weirdly endearing after a while.

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I also like the logo they gave the show in Japan. It’s similar to the western effort but I like the ninja mask over the first kana, it just looks cool.

So the show ran for 102 episodes and then got cancelled. But 102 episodes of an American cartoon was basically unheard of at the time and Takara was still cranking out toys even after the cancellation so they thought, let’s just make some more ourselves.  We’ll do some straight to video episodes to promote these new toys we’re making.**

And so was born the TMNT original video anime (or OVA).

So here is a brief summary of what happens in the two episodes of this show.

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The first episode starts with a flashback to an episode that does not exist so right from the beginning we’re getting into some strange stuff but I’ll explain it all later. Krang discovers a dark muta-stone, a counterpart to the turtles own muta-stones (just stay with it I’ll explain later). Inside the stone is a fairy called Dark-Mu with the power to destroy the universe. He hopes to awaken her and use her power to destroy the Earth. Meanwhile on Earth the turtles fairy friend Crys-Mu (nope, it is never explained where the fairy friend comes from) alerts the turtles that Dark-Mu is being awakened and this is causing problems for the Earth such as hurricanes, tidal waves and earthquakes. The turtles set out to stop Krang but he sends Shredder, Be-Bop and Rocksteady to stop them. They arrive and use the powers of the muta-stone to turn into respectively some kind of robot dragon, a New Wave Rock Star and a cross between a rhino and a lizard.

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The Turtles respond by using their own muta-stones (which they got in the episode that never happened) to turn into incredibly buff and disturbingly handsome green skinned humans wearing shells and carrying ridiculous weaponry (Raphael has the spinning top of super violent wind and Michaelangelo appears to have some kind of robot fish). The two groups fight and Dark-Mu awakens sending a tidal wave that submerges Tokyo. She reveals her powers by causing Shredder to grow into an enormous robot dragon and sending another giant ball of black energy to destroy the Earth which splinter just deflects with his bare hands because in this continuity Splinter is basically Chuck Norris. The turtles defeat Shredder by tricking him into dropping a building on his own head but Dark-Mu flies into space where she can destroy the world.

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So the turtles form the turtle saint, a giant robot turtle complete with wings (yes, you did read that correctly) to fly after her. They attempt to stop her but cannot because, well, I’ll let this quote from Donatello sum it up.

“how troubling, if we don’t sync with each other we can’t defeat her”

So Crys-Mu flies up and fights Dark-Mu. She thinks she can seal both herself and Dark-Mu back in the Muta-stones but she needs the turtles help, so they use their “mega final saint break” attack and turn both Crys-Mu and Dark-Mu back into stones.

I’ll, I’ll let that sink in for a moment guys.

Have you digested that? Good, prepare for more insanity.

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So in episode 2 the world is fine (…okay, sure) and the turtles travel to Japan at the behest of some “real” ninja. Shredder also has gone to Japan and this leads to a brief scene on the Shinkansen (bullet train) where Shredder loses to some “real” ninja which I think might be symbolic of something, hmmm. Anyway the turtles arrive in the ninja village where they have a magic mirror with some stones on the back and someone is trying to steal it. That someone is, unsurprisingly, Shredder who has been sent there by Krang to get the stones which turn out to be Muta-stones from the back of the mirror. When he realises this the head ninja pulls a chain WHICH EXPLODES THE HOUSE THEY WERE ALL IN AND CAUSES A GIGANTIC CASTLE, WHICH IS APPARENTLY THEIR HIDDEN FORTRESS, TO RISE FROM THE GROUND!!!

It was at exactly that point that I decided that this is actually my all-time favourite version of TMNT.

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Oh and at some point before that the Turtle got ninja armour, because ninja armour is totally a thing despite the fact that this show has approximately eleventy trillion ninjas in it and none of them have worn armour before.

So now they all race to the top of the castle and Shredder gets there first and gets his muta-stones. This causes robot animals to fly from OUT OF MT FUJI! Then they meet up with Shredder, Bebop and Rocksteady and form robotic samurai armour for them. Shredder gets white tiger armour, Bebop gets a fish and Rocksteady gets some kind of Hydra. So we have the spectacle of a warthog mutant wearing armour that makes him look like a fish.

Ow, sorry guys I may have to pause for a moment, I think that might have been an aneurysm. Or can the rest of you smell purple now too?

So they fight the turtles for a bit and then the turtles get the mirror which causes them to get robot animal samurai armour too because just being turtles with ninja armour, that’s lame, kid’s won’t like that. Raphael gets a phoenix, Leonardo gets a dragon, Donatello gets a lion with wings and a dragon’s tail (???) and Michaelangelo gets some kind of cross between a lion, a spider, a crab and a turtle. And his attack is called the “beef bee tonic” so that’s also cows and bees and….I have honestly no idea what animal he’s supposed to be. I don’t think the creators did either, or cared.

So they fight for a bit, the turtles win and Shredder and his gang run away. The Ninjas are happy, the end.

…..

Now based upon that you’d be inclined to think, this is insane. There is no rhyme nor reason to what is happening here, the creators are completely round the bend loco. They are one crayon short of a box. They are not in their right minds. They are cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

And I had the same thought when I saw the trailer for it on youtube lo those many years ago.

But if you watch the entire show you realise pretty much in the first three minutes that THEY KNOW. The creators are fully cognizant that the story they’re telling is completely and utterly certified bat shit and they’re doing it on purpose. Rather than this being an example of Japan naively adapting a western property to Japanese tastes by adding giant robots and transformations it is a parody of all those conventions of anime and super-sentai. And they’ve crammed literally every cliché they can think of in here; giant robots, people combining and having to sync up their hearts, transforming heroes and villains, robot animals and animal themed armour and powers, mystical forces, ancient ninja magic, villains making their minions grow. If you can think of a shonen anime or super-sentai cliché it’s probably in here. And that extends to the visual style as well which incorporates every clichéd image and money saving trick ever used in an anime.

And that’s entirely appropriate.  TMNT the comic was kind of a parody but mostly played straight, TMNT the animated show had its tongue firmly in cheek but TMNT the anime pushes the jokes into pythonesque surrealism. I mean just look at some of the visual gags like this foot soldier in a Hawaiian shirt.

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Or indeed the…everything, about this.

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There’s also some brilliant visual gags I can’t show you here because they’re animated. My favourite being a series of images of the world being destroyed; Tokyo Tower crumbles, the Eiffel Tower crumbles, and then it cuts to China where….a picture falls off a wall.

The dialogue as well is so tongue in cheek it’s gone right through the other side. That’s why we have gems like, “I don’t object to destroying the earth but where will we live afterwards?”

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If you want further proof the very first scene is a flashback to an episode THAT NEVER HAPPENED! So all this stuff with fairies and muta-stones is just there and is never explained. Because it doesn’t have to because you know what the muta-stones are, they’re a macguffin like whatever the sentai-rangers need to power up this series.

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Other than all the parody stuff the characters are actually remarkably similar to the originals in appearance and personality. The 4 turtles are basically unchanged (until they mutate into incredible hunks or metal samurai). April O’Neil is basically the same except for, ironically, having a smaller chest (you’ve disappointed me Japan, where is your incredible perversion when I need it? Although Dark Mu does kind of make up for it). Splinter is the same in appearance and personality but has been elevated to monumental badass. Not only can he deflect huge energy blasts but he can project an illusionary image of himself that is LARGER THAN THE MOON!***

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Shredder is the only character to get a re-design and weirdly he gets two. In the second episode he has a look that’s quite similar to his movie appearance but without his trademark blades that make him, y’know the shredder. In the first episode though he has a very different helmet with a sort of red crest on it. He also doesn’t  have his shredding blades but instead has absolutely enormous shoulder pads. Oh and his eyes have become anime eyes and decidedly more expressive.

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He’s barely in this shape before he turns into a satanic robot dragon though so, whatever.

As far as alternative versions of the turtles go it’s beyond stupid and far from definitive but incredibly enjoyable. The creators looked at the original slightly weird and fun concept, looked at the utterly bizarre toys they were being paid to advertise and just said, “let’s make the weirdest, silliest, stupidest version of this show we can.” And they succeeded, and the result is wonderful.

You can check out the insanity for yourself on youtube, the starting link is embedded below.

I also want to direct you to who has a fascinating article on the complicated history of the turtles in Japan which was very helpful in writing and researching this post.

*For the curious it’s 30% ridiculous stuff from Japan 30% cats, 35% porn 4% memes and 1% misc.

** This is something I used to think was particularly Japanese, that if something is popular once they will never let it die. Gundam and Sentai Ranger for example have been going pretty much continuously since the 70’s but every series has a new setting and characters just shared themes, ideas and elements like the costumes for sentai ranger or the robots for Gundam. See also Final Fantasy, Mario, Gatchman, Transformers, etc, etc. And this was something that never happened in the west so when something like TMNT got cancelled, that was it, it was cancelled, over and done and with very few exceptions not coming back. Of course now Hollywood and western television is obsessed with remaking stuff that works before. And I also realised that all those properties that get constantly re-made in Japan, they’re not mainstream properties but nerdy ones. This is because Japan realised two things long before Hollywood did. 1. Nerds spend a ton of money. 2. If you give nerds something they already like but just change it slightly, they will buy it all over again and hence why we went 7 years for a TMNT remake the first time but less than 2 this time.

*** As everyone knows, old people in Japan don’t get older they just get smaller and more powerful as their power becomes more concentrated. If you ever find yourself in a group of heavily armed thugs, say there’s about 50 of you, armed with machine guns, and you come across a single old Japanese man with a cane, run! Run away immediately because he is going to destroy you utterly.

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