Reel Streaming: Martial Arts Legend Sonny Chiba Loses to Covid-19
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 47
By Laurence Lerman
If you’ve ever watched any Japanese martial arts movies from the Seventies, then you’ve probably seen one starring Sonny Chiba. Not the mainstream and relatively tame movies featuring American-born Chinese star Bruce Lee that rolled out to local cinemas and daytime television, mind you, but rather the violent and bloody ones that played in Asian theaters, on the American midnight and college circuit and on late-night TV. The ones where neither the good guys nor the bad ones were in the habit of showing their adversaries any mercy. Those were the ones with actor and martial artist Chiba.
A prolific performer who amassed more than 200 credits over the course a career spanning some six decades, Chiba died last Thursday, August 18, in a hospital in Kimitsu, Japan, at the age of 82. The cause was complications related to Covid-19.
It’s both sad and startling that a ferocious presence like Chiba, whose strength and fury were evident in countless roles as an assassin, samurai, superhero, terrorist, soldier, emperor, cop and even a space alien, could fall prey to so silent and unseen an enemy.
Chiba was born Sadaho Maeda in Fukuoka, Japan in 1939, decades before he began using the stage name Shin’ichi Chiba and, later, Sonny Chiba. He began studying martial arts as a teen under the renowned karate master Masutatsu Oyama (whom he later portrayed in a trilogy of films), earning a first-degree black belt in karate in 1965. It was the first of a remarkable six black belts he held in six martial arts, including kendo, judo and ninjutsu.
Chiba got his start in entertainment as a leading costumed character in the 1959 Japanese superhero television show Seven Color Mask. His natural physicality and hard-boiled attitude, unique for a kids’ program at the time, quickly led to starring role roles in all manner of low-budget films. Within no time at all, Chiba was popping up in crime movies, thrillers, comedies and sci-fi action flicks, like 1961’s Invasion of the Neptune Men, his first big screen outing.
The work kept coming, and by 1970, Chiba had started his own training school for aspiring martial arts actors and stunt performers, which helped to raise the level of the techniques that were used in Japanese film and television. Chiba’s skills and style didn’t embody the kind of graceful and fluid motions that at the time were elevating Bruce Lee to stardom; Chiba’s approach was far more savage, more furious, with fists and feet flying all about as enemies big and small were taken down for the count, with a final blow usually administered while they were on their backs.
This was the no-prisoners persona he bought to 1974’s The Street Fighter, directed by Shigehiro Ozawa. In it, Chiba is martial arts expert Takuma “Terry” Tsurugi, a professional mercenary who doesn’t hesitate to unleash a deadly “oxygen coma punch” on an opponent or rip out the vocal cords of a particularly talky one. Oh, and he generally does it all with a nasty grimace of self-satisfaction.
The Street Fighter was released in the U.S. by fledgling New Line Cinema and became one of its first commercial successes. Notably, it was also the first film to ever receive an “X” rating in the U.S. solely for violence, a classification that was changed to “R” several years later.
That same year, Japan’s Toei Company Ltd. quickly banged out a pair of sequels also starring Chiba, Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, as well as a spin-off, Sister Street Fighter, which also yielded sequels. All were picked up for distribution in the U.S. and around the world and Chiba quickly became an international star, easily identified as the seething dark flipside of Bruce Lee and his shining box office grosses.
Dozens of films followed over the next 25 years, primarily produced in Chiba’s native Japan. A number of them, including the Dirty Harry-ish crime thriller Doberman Cop (1977), the time-travel action-adventure G.I. Samurai (1979) and the one-final-heist aging criminal saga Triple Cross (1992) are routinely shown in rep houses and continue to be discovered by new generations of martial arts fans.
Chiba also scored in the U.S.’s thriving straight-to-tape action era of the Nineties, appearing in such genre chewers as Aces: Iron Eagle III (1992), Immortal Combat (1994) and Body Count. Forgettable cheapies all, but you can bet that as viewers were rewinding their tapes prior to returning them to Blockbuster, they still had Chiba’s formidable presence in mind.
Chiba still remains best known in the West for his role as Hattori Hanzo, legendary swordsmith who crafts the ultimate weapon for Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 slash-a-thon Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003). Tarantino had previously paid homage to Chiba in his script for Tony Scott’s 1993 True Romance, wherein Christian Slater’s character attempts to wangle a date to accompany him to a late-night Sonny Chiba triple feature.
More respect was paid when Chiba appeared as a yakuza kingpin in the wildly popular 2006 action-adventure The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift and then in the 2012 revenge thriller Sushi Girl as a chef whose knife-work isn’t limited to slicing you-know-what. Both the franchise favorite and the arthouse entry introduced Chiba to yet another potential wave of action lovers, who probably noted the older and tougher guy sharing the screen with either Vin Diesel or a gal draped in sashimi.
Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic and a subsequent deluge of production delays, Chiba had been signed to appear in the zombie action thriller Outbreak Z alongside Jesse Ventura and Wesley Snipes, a project that still remains in pre-production limbo. The complete story line hasn’t been announced and I’m not sure what characters Ventura or Snipes were down for, but I’d like to imagine that Sonny would have kicked both their asses.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.