What Are the Actual Ninjutsu Skills of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
The heroes in a half-shell are half-assing it.
Accuracy in martial arts is the last thing you can expect in superhero pop culture. Archery is barely a useful tool for vigilantism, so there’s even lower expectations with Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s amphibious adolescents, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
But given the faux mysticism and exoticism peppered throughout producer Michael Bay and director Dave Green’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Out of the Shadows, it’s worth taking to task the accuracy of its ninjutsu with other likely false mysticism that I’ve found on Wikipedia and GeoCities-hosted webpages.
I should stress I am not a ninja, nor a ninjutsu practitioner. I mean if I were, I’d have to kill you. Luckily (for you) I haven’t studied tae kwon do since I was 11, I lost every wrestling match in high school, and I haven’t been to my Muay Thai gym in months. Months! I almost beat Ninja Gaiden II, though, if that matters.
But I am obsessed with martial arts movies, and by osmosis I’ve become observationally familiar. Strictly speaking, ninjutsu is the discipline of guerrilla warfare that originated in Japan (no shit) and is composed of eighteen skills, called the Ninja Juhakkei. But among these eighteen — one of which is straight-up meteorology (Tenmon) — only two relate to our heroes in a half-shell.
Bōjutsu, or stick and staff martial arts, and Kenjutsu, or sword techniques, are the only two that connect — with Donatello and Leonardo being the obvious practitioners. Neither Michaelangelo’s dope nunchaku or Raphael’s sai are among the Ninja Juhakkei.
There are a handful of other assorted skills we’ve seen the turtles utilize, but it’s never been their thing. As turtles, they should be fine at sui-ren — or water training — while shinobi-iri is the classic technique of stealth and infiltration, which the Turtles have actually been pretty shitty at in every iteration. They’re also awful at hensōjutsu, or concealment.
But what about the fun stuff, like their weapons?
Kenjutsu is the umbrella term for all Japanese swordsmanship and is a forerunner to modern kendo and iaido. Obviously this is Leonardo’s bag, but because he carries two swords this is also technically inaccurate.
Though it refers to the use of a full-sized katana and shorter-length wakizashi, nitōjutsu — “two sword methods” popularized by the legendary Miyamoto Musashi — would better describe Leonardo, besides “boring as hell.”
Bōjutsu is the flexible style that uses staff or pole weapons that differ in size but typically reach up to 1.8 meters. It differs from the more medieval sōjutsu, the ninjutsu skill utilizing a spear.
Unless, of course, you’re thinking “swinging a stick like a helicopter blade,” in which case you’re actually thinking of gun techniques, from Chinese kung-fu. Since we’re talking Ninja Turtles, you probably are.
Like Raphael and Michaelangelo’s styles (we’ll get to them in a bit), Donnie’s staff is one of many weapons practiced in Okinawan martial arts. Meant to be an “extension of one’s limbs,” bōjutsu is a rigid form compared to the fluid (and cinematically pleasing) Chinese styles like Nangun. Either way, many a mother’s broomstick have been brandished into would-be ninjas of suburbia.
Not a ninjutsu skill. Yeah, both Michaelangelo and Raphael’s weapons are not a part of ninjutsu. I’ll accept mutant sea creatures becoming pop culture-obsessed pizza lovers, but that they’re not using real ninjutsu is an insult.
Another Okinawan martial art, the nunchaku was (and still is) used as a training weapon to let the user develop quicker hand movement and posture. And I mean, think about it: Two sticks held by chain makes for a bad time on the battlefield.
However, actor and legit legend Bruce Lee popularized the nunchaku in modern times thanks to movies like The Chinese Connection and Game of Death. So, you can blame him for the misconception. Besides Okinawan martial arts, nunchaku is taught with Filipino escrima and Korean tae kwon do.
Originally the 17th century Okinawan equivalent to a police baton (which in turn is modeled after a tonfa), the deceptive sai is actually a trapping and blocking tool that flows into brute strikes onto the solar plexus. You wouldn’t wield or use it like you’d use a European dagger, for example.
Prior to its use in Okinawa, evidence of the sai’s existence was seen throughout southeast Asia, throughout Thailand, India, Vietnam, and Malaysia. And in case this wasn’t clear, it’s not really a ninja weapon. But, also, being a turtle isn’t exactly an advisable species to be as far as taking up martial arts.