Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Turtle Power and Life on the Edge

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1990
Living down here is great except for
those C.H.U.D assholes.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon show was pretty much required viewing for any child born in the 1980s.  By the time I was in grade 4, Ninja Turtles merchandise had become more ubiquitous than the ill-fated and short-lived Pog phenomenon that would threaten to overwhelm parents' wallets in a deluge of cheap cardboard and surprisingly painful plastic and metal projectiles ever would.  During the height of Turtle-Mania, you couldn't walk into someone's house, a school, a store, a bar, a prison, a brothel, a 1960's style barber shop where the barber shaves you with a straight razor and the endings are always happy, a Somali pirate ship, an opium den, the MIR space station, OJ's white Ford Bronco, or a brothel without being inundated with or tripping over some product proudly bearing the resemblance of or branded with the characters or symbols from the Ninja Turtle Universe.  It wouldn't surprise me if the Ninja Turtle phenomenon later inspired an entire sector of the porn industry, though the possibilities of what the final products of such nostalgic fascination might resemble fill me with a certain kind of Terror that prohibits me from actually soliciting Google for such potentially mind-warping fare.

The TMNT animated show seemed by far to garner the largest following and, I think, did the most to ensure that the brand was enshrined in the hearts of the youth.  However, the Ninja Turtles cartoon show was a candy-coated version of the live action movie and the ultimate source material in the comics that was decidedly aimed at a much more mature audience with sufficient intestinal fortitude and adequate steel content in their genitals.  The Turtles of the comics (at least the early ones) were serious assassins-in-training, and, unlike their counterparts in the neon-bright, bubble-gum flavoured cartoon show, actually put their weapons to good use, helping their enemies shuffle off their mortal coils in a fashion that would make Paul Verhoeven proud.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cartoon
Alright, everyone attack, but, just, like, try not to actually
use your deadly weapons.  You know, in case some kids
happen to be watching for some reason.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomenon reflected a deeper cultural fascination with ninjas that seems to have peaked in the 80s, but never faded completely from the collective consciousness.  Ninjas have been shrouded in a certain mystique that, especially here in the West, probably has very little to do with the actual historical ninjas of yore.  The appeal of the Ninja Myth at first seems pretty obvious: a bunch of ass-kicking, stealthy, demi-gods who have mastered ancient, mystical secrets and exist in the shadows striking out at their enemies with deadly precision then disappearing back into oblivion.

But really, I think the appeal of the ninja is deeper than that.  Ninjas were spies, saboteurs, and assassins, which meant that in order for ninjas to effectively be ninjas they had to be outsiders.  And that, I think, is what speaks to people.  The concept of the Ninja is empowering because not only were they Outsiders, they were Outsiders who could Kick Some Ass.  And more than that, ninjas represent disenfranchisement and alienation at least in part as a conscious choice on the part of the individual, which grants a certain level of agency in the face of feelings of otherwise total societal estrangement.  Being a loner kind of sucks. But being a Lone Wolf is kind of awesome. It may seem like the cultural equivalent of "You can't fire me because I quit," but really it's becoming awesome in your own mind, which is ultimately the only place that designation really matters, even though it may not always seem that way.

Sexy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
I think I'm getting a fuzzy feeling in my shell.
Although I don't think that Eastman and Laird, the creators of the Ninja Turtles, were necessarily conscious of it at the time, I think that the title of their property emphasizes that unconscious connection.  The heroes they created were "Teenage," "Mutant," and "Ninja," all terms which carry certain connotations of being on the outskirts of society. Our teenage years represent a transitional time, and I think most people can relate to feeling of isolation and alienation that often accompany those turbulent years and a "Me against the World" mentality. Outside of the realm of superhero mythology, mutation implies abnormality and the violation of expectations as well as negative health benefits, physical deformities, mental impairments, bad breath, and possibly inbreeding.  Teenagers, mutants, and ninjas are all fringe elements, and I think we can all agree that the only awesome demographic in that group is ninjas.  By associating archetypes of typically disempowered social outsiders with ninjas, who have come to represent empowerment and agency, it helps lend validation to the Outsider Status.

And that's the ultimate message of the new Ninja Mythology: Don't worry about being a freak, just so long as you be the best goddamn freak you can be.  (Unless your version of being a freak entails slipping drugs into the drinks of unsuspecting people in bars, sitting around in nondescript, unmarked vans near schools or playgrounds, or talking on your cell phone in the movie theatre.  Then you probably require professional mental support/severe jail time/fire, and lots of it.)  The message is semi-universal in part because, depending on the context, we're all outsiders to some degree.  And so we all have the potential to be ninjas at some point when called upon.

But being a ninja isn't frivolous.  It requires self-sacrificing discipline and a supreme dedication to Clint Eastwood-like stoicism and adherence to an ass-kicking mentality (and, depending on the circumstances, actual ass-kicking).  Also an awesome ninja outfit and maybe some nunchucks and smoke bombs wouldn't hurt either.


The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie will soon be unleashed upon audiences, though to what effect/affect remains to be seen.  Based on nostalgia alone, this (Michael Bay-produced) film is destined to make a buttload of cash; however, deep down I can't help but feel that at best this will be a mere shadow of the Ninja Legacy, a watered down, soulless blockbuster cash-grab.  Unfortunately, ninja beggars can't be ninja choosers and only time will tell True Believers...


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