Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin’s Guiding Voices and the Search for Peace
A staple of the ’80s and ’90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have lived on in various forms throughout the decades. Original creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird have returned to the medium that started it all—graphic novels—with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin. Both the first printing of Part 1 and the hardcover collection sold out immediately, and rightfully so. The story is captivating and the art is incredible. Set against the shadow of post-apocalyptic New York, the book asks hard questions but offers hopeful resolutions.
This article contains spoilers for TMNT: The Last Ronin.
The Lone (True) Survivor
Earth has sustained a great catastrophe, causing the U.S. to turn Manhattan into a walled-off fortress (reminiscent of Escape From New York). From The Last Ronin’s cover and title, you can tell only one turtle is left standing. It’s a pretty harsh decision by the creative team, but it’s a taste of the book’s grittiness and risk-taking. Until the final page of Part 1: Wish for Death the reader doesn’t know which of the brothers survived. It’s a spoiler not worth spoiling, so because “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Who Shall Not Be Named” is a little clunky, we’ll go with the “Unnamed Turtle” from here on.
The entirety of Part 1 has the Unnamed Turtle hunting Oroku Hiroto, Shredder’s grandson. Hiroto has built an empire above ground, which means the sewers offer silence and solitude. Solitude can lead to loneliness, but the Unnamed Turtle finds some solace in Splinter’s journal. Part martial arts instruction manual, part window to the master’s thoughts, we’re shown the last page stating: “no peace.”
One theme of the apocalyptic genre is the restless, lone survivor. We may think of The Gunslinger or The Book of Eli or, if we were pressed for something really weird, A Boy and His Dog. So the idea of a ronin as a lone survivor isn’t surprising, especially given that Frank Miller created a comic series in the early ’80s literally called Ronin about a warrior in New York City! Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Fundamentally, I know a ronin is a masterless warrior, so I should not have been surprised by Splinter’s demise. But as a fan, watching Eastman and Laird take their thirty-nine-year-old Turtles property and kill off Splinter was saddening. I’m sure it was heartbreaking for the creators too. And maybe it was supposed to be. The Unnamed Turtle’s grief is more impactful because, oddly enough, the audience is affected by the loss of a giant fictitious rat.
For the Turtle, or anyone who has always been told what to do, losing that direction can be disorienting. And if that disciple wishes to emulate his master it can be especially difficult to hypothesize what the master would have done as times change. But the world moves forward, so a disciple must decide to stay rigid or become flexible. If the path of resiliency (and therefore growth) is chosen, he must adhere to the spirit of the instruction. If the wisdom is worth living by then the sage’s guidance should evolve and speak in fresh, relevant ways.
The graphic novel’s Parts 2 and 3 deal with the Unnamed Turtle finding a familiar face and meeting some new rebel friends. One of the new friends is Casey, daughter of April O’Neil and Casey Jones. Young Casey has been a lone wolf, teaching herself martial arts via an instruction manual. For both the Unnamed Turtle and Casey, it is difficult to partner with others, having been independent for so long. But the two find commonality in guidance—one searching, the other learning to mentor.
An Education in Patience
An older mentor taking a younger protégé under their wing is a post-apocalyptic trope. We may think of Lone Wolf and Cub or the newest video game-turned-TV-show The Last of Us. The mentor’s education will mold the pupil’s life.
Education has always been important for the Turtles. In the very first 1984 comic, Splinter is surrounded by books (with telling titles like The Ninja, Janson’s Art History, and Care and Keeping of Your Turtle).¹ So it’s no surprise in The Last Ronin that Splinter kept a journal of instruction, and the Unnamed Turtle treats it as a precious bible. Guidance can be priceless, especially if we have a relationship with the instructor.
Another theme of the apocalyptic genre is a guiding voice from outside oneself. The Warriors were guided by a radio DJ. In Neal Shusterman’s Scythe series, the all-powerful (and refreshingly not a sentient-computer-that-inevitably-turns-evil) cloud-based AI called the Thunderhead perpetually guides every human. Denzel Washington heard from God through the Bible in The Book of Eli.
In a very sensei move, Jesus explains His guidance: “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28). When His followers learn to recognize and obey His voice, Jesus promises to bring them safely through the Apocalypse and into life eternal.
Jesus’s claim to be the definitive Teacher-Shepherd is bold yet reassuring. His voice is calm, never losing His patience as He guides His followers through life’s difficulties and toward eternity. But not every leader offers patient protection through the worst of times. In The Last Ronin, Part 4: Blood in the Snow, the Unnamed Turtle begins passing Splinter’s teachings on to Casey. But the Turtle’s desire to defeat Oroku Hiroto makes him impatient with Casey’s slow progress. It is a painfully beautiful moment as the reader watches a flame spring to life, dancing between passing the torch and being snuffed out.
The final installment (aptly titled, The Last Ronin) opens with the Unnamed Turtle in Splinter’s room staring at the master’s journal. Mentally and physically preparing for battle, he finally jots something on the last page and leaves the book behind.
An epic fight worth the price of admission ensues. After fighting Hiroto, the Unnamed Turtle struggles in the mud outside of the sewer outlets. Casey runs up, begging him not to die, telling him he promised to teach her more about being a ninja. When he sees she has Splinter’s journal he says he left it for her because, “It will teach you…all he knew. But [the] last lesson…is mine.”
Turning to the last page where he has changed “no peace” to “know peace,” he says, “Most important of all.” Although not the end of the story, it is a well-written bookend. It’s as if creators Eastman and Laird were channeling Jesus’s words from the gospel of John. As we just read, Jesus’s sheep obey His voice, but shortly after that He said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27).
The Turtle earned personal peace by fighting Hiroto for his family’s honor. But he has passed the torch on to Casey, training her to be a defender and experience peace herself. Splinter’s lonely disciple has become a mentor himself: the pupil has become the guiding voice.
1. “Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, 1984, reprinted by IDW, 2012.