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Sonny Chiba: 1939-2021

Sonny Chiba in "Kill Bill"

Sonny Chiba became a name you knew in 1975. He was previously Shinichi Chiba, a movie star who was discovered in a 1959 talent contest by Japan’s Toei film studio. Chiba was also Sadaho Maeda, an athlete and would-be gymnast, born in 1939. Most people remember him as Sonny Chiba, the star of the blood-soaked “The Street Fighter,” the first American-released movie to be rated “X” for violence. Chiba was also the elusive swordsmith Hattori Hanzo in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” Chiba had a face made for comic book adaptations, and a hearty laugh for anyone who remembered him at all. He died yesterday from COVID-19-related complications; Chiba was unvaccinated and had been struggling with the virus since July. 

Chiba was fortunate enough to have lived many lives during his extensive acting career. And he’d say as much every time he delivered an abbreviated biography to a nervous English-speaking interviewer. He wasn’t exactly complaining when he foregrounded his thwarted gymnastic ambitions. After all, his physique and therefore his ability to do his own stunts was somewhat important for his livelihood. 

Chiba also assumed that people judged him because he wasn’t a trained actor. He was an autodidact, and would later co-found the Japan Action Club (JAC) studio in 1970, where he encouraged other actors to focus on body language to develop new characters (JAC alums include Hiroyuki Sanada and Etsuko Shiomi). Chiba liked to play different kinds of characters, which was surely his way of coping with early fame as a studio-groomed star. 

But Chiba seemingly didn’t need anybody to know all that. He was, however, an open book to curious and prepared interviewers. In a 1997 Q&A with Chris D., author of Outlaw Masters of Cinema (and former lead singer of The Flesh Eaters), Chiba notes that Toei “always pushed the extreme action-hero image.” Everyone else just needed to know that Chiba became an actor after he trained for the Olympics. And then he sustained some kind of debilitating injury (it was his hip, and it happened when he was working a part-time construction job). That was in 1957; he was 20 at the time, and about two years away from being discovered by Toei.

In Chris D.’s essential interview, Chiba laughs when he hears the titles of his earliest starring roles, particularly the science-fiction B-movies “Invasion of the Neptune Men” (1961) and “Terror Beneath the Sea” (1966). Those were just the first Chiba films to be released in America. He’d previously broken through as a TV star on tokusatsu-style superhero shows “Seven Color Mask” and “Messenger of Allah.” Chiba played the title role in both shows. He would later star in other comic book adaptations, like “Golgo 13” and “The Storm Riders.” In all of these early performances, Chiba used his good looks and well-toned muscles to disarm viewers. He was a star, and he knew how to hit his marks. 

Sonny Chiba in "Hepcat with a Funky Hat"

Chiba also learned a lot about acting by working with Kinji Fukasaku, a talented but (at the time) brand new director. They initially worked together on two very different crime/noir series: first “The Wandering Detective” and then the “Funky Hat” movies. Chiba and Fukasaku would later collaborate on a few more projects, including “Battles Without Honor and Humanity 2: Hiroshima Death Match.” 

Chiba was always quick to tell his fans how grateful he was to Fukasaku, for giving Shinichi Chiba his first lead roles—and at the start of Fukasaku’s film career, too. In 1997, Chiba also told Chris D. that Fukasaku taught him how to improvise by comparing his “Funky Hat” role to “up-tempo jazz.” “Whereas the ‘Wandering Detective’ films were more conventional, Mr. Fukasaku asked me to be light, funky, very physical in the ‘Funky Hat’ movies,” Chiba said. “I wasn’t sure how to do it. Mr. Fukasaku had us improvise the rhythms.” Chiba added: “In some ways, those four films, the ‘Wandering Detective’ and ‘Funky Hat’ pictures, were the most important of the early years of my career. They were instrumental in creating the skeletal bone structure of my acting in movies.”

Chiba was always serious about acting, even when his roles limited what he could do on-screen. He didn’t have a Scorsese or a Kurosawa to encourage him: Chiba had Fukasaku, the brilliant Leftist agitator who was often content with helming studio programmers, and some eccentric genre hybrids, like the relentlessly bleak scifi epic “Virus” (1980) or the bonkers samurai horror-fantasy “Samurai Reincarnation.”

Chiba told Chris D. that “Hiroshima Death Match” was one of his favorite collaborations with Fukasaku because he got to play a villain. He compared himself with Robert De Niro, who “somehow managed to remain cool, to maintain some kind of authority, even some kind of morality to his bad side” even during his more “violent movies.” By contrast, Chiba wanted his sweaty, punky “Hiroshima Death Match” mobster to be “straightforward in his brutality and cool by being uncool. I wanted to make myself into an ugly human being.”

Sonny Chiba in the "Street Fighter" movies

According to Chiba, working with Fukasaku on “Hiroshima Death Match” taught him how play the hyper-violent antihero lead in “The Street Fighter,” his first role as Sonny Chiba. Chiba was renamed by American film exec Robert Shaye, who distributed “The Street Fighter” in the US under the New Line Cinema studio banner. Comparing Sonny Chiba’s performances with Shinichi Chiba’s work is a bit like comparing the masterful early comic art of Jean Giraud (particularly his baroque western comic Blueberry) with his iconic later work as Moebius. They’re both great, but in two different emotional registers. 

In “The Street Fighter,” Chiba plays Terry Tsurugi, a righteous mercenary who takes it upon himself to protect a wealthy heiress from ruthless kidnappers. In that movie, Chiba makes a meal of tensing and arching every individual muscle (even his brows), just to remind you that they’re his. When you look at Chiba in “The Street Fighter,” you’re not looking at somebody who, when they turn their back, transforms into somebody with a vaguely similar body type. That was always Sonny Chiba. He made a meal out of eating an apple, goggling his eyes with intrigue. He’s not playing off of any other actors either—he’s just watching the TV. That’s the kind of unguarded intensity that made Chiba iconic in “The Street Fighter.” 

That and a lot of well-publicized gore. Chiba rips off one heavy’s junk with his bare hands. And before the movie ends, he tears out another guy’s throat. Chiba also caves in a third guy’s skull; a gout of candy apple blood covers Chiba’s victim, but only after we’re shown an X-ray of the poor guy’s head. That’s the sort of violence that led the New York Times’ Gerald Jonas to speculate that maybe censorship was actually a good thing. “I walked into the theater a firm foe of censorship in any shape or form, especially censorship dealing with the human body and its natural functions,” Jonas wrote. “I came out of the theater sick to my stomach at the thought of any child being allowed to see what I had just seen.” This was in 1975, by the way. 

Two more “The Street Fighter” sequels followed, as well as a “Sister Street Fighter” spinoff trilogy starring Shiomi (Chiba co-starred in the first “Sister Street Fighter”). In “Return of the Street Fighter” (1974), Chiba punches a baddy’s eyes out of their sockets, like an “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoon. Chiba also comes to a full stop after he takes out a hotel suite of heavies, hissing like an angry cat when he exhales. Or maybe like an angry teapot. At the time, he’s wearing orange-and-white-striped swim trunks. And in “The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge” (also 1974), Chiba snaps one flunky’s neck with his feet; the veins in his own neck carry the scene. The shock of the new may not have been strong enough at this point, but Chiba thankfully never knew when to quit. 

Like Charles Bronson and Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba was best known as an icon and not an actor. Chiba was a “cake of soap,” as Bronson once referred to his public image during a conversation with Roger Ebert. But Chiba always put his whole weight behind his performances, and never seemed to mind being overshadowed by his titanic image. 

Cult leader Tarantino would later introduce Chiba to a new generation of American fans, and several times over. First there was “True Romance” (1993), where Christian Slater’s character calls Chiba “the greatest actor working in martial movies today.” Then there was “Pulp Fiction” (1994), featuring a re-written introductory square-up spiel from “The Bodyguard” (the US release, at least), which is re-presented as a Bible quote about vengeance and the path of the righteous man. In “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino literally replaced Sonny Chiba with God in the Book of Ezekiel. 

Sonny Chiba in "Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift"

Later, Tarantino re-imagined Chiba as Hattori Hanzo, a master artisan. Other tributes followed, as in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” (2006), where Chiba is dressed up in a white-overcoat and matching Panama hat. He seemed to enjoy his status as an action god, as when he traded compliments and shadow-kicks with “John Wick” star Keanu Reeves during a Japanese TV interview. This was in 2019; Chiba was 80 years old.

Still, Tarantino didn’t invent Chiba, and there were other, equally satisfying tributes over the years. I especially like Chiba’s cameo as a drunk in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s low-key trippy manga adaptation “The Visitor in the Eye” (1977). Chiba’s also pretty good in matinee idol mode, as Shinichi Chiba, in “Terror Beneath the Sea.” He spends most of that creature feature shielding co-lead Peggy Neal from an army of mutant squid-men. 

Chiba leads with his chin when he and Neal feel their way around a monster-filled underwater grotto. He’s also given the unenviable task of reacting to one of the aquatic creatures as it mutates in stages and at some length. One moment we’re looking at a guy whose limp forearm is covered in some kind of grey molé-like substance, then it’s Chiba’s look of surprise. Now the monster is covered in cream of mushroom—and back to Chiba’s increasingly worried face. Then it’s a stack of Pringles on the monster’s back (you don’t have to believe me; this movie exists anyway), so Chiba shifts to his back foot. Now we’re looking at a furry paw whose talon-like claws grow in one by one. Only Shinichi Chiba could keep up with all that, and while wearing a white collared smock with cream-colored khakis, too. 

Chiba was always a committed performer, no matter what kind of soap he was sold as. In “Terror Beneath the Sea,” he jumps onto and rolls over medical exam tables during a brawl with a sour-faced opponent. And in “The Street Fighter,” he wipes the blood off his hands and onto goofy sidekick Goichi Yamada’s beige pullover. This is right after Chiba pokes another man’s eyes out of his head. Yamada’s character wonders aloud what Chiba plans to do next. A little bit of everything, really.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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