Sonny Chiba: Martial arts master and icon of Japanese cinema

Although many westerners know him as the blade-wielding Hattori Hanzo in ‘Kill Bill’, Chiba had a glittering career that spanned six decades

Casey Neate
Thursday 02 September 2021 00:01
<p>There is a prevailing tendency among Chiba’s biographers to overstress the fingerprint left on his career by Quentin Tarantino</p>

There is a prevailing tendency among Chiba’s biographers to overstress the fingerprint left on his career by Quentin Tarantino

An icon of Japanese cinema, Shinichi Chiba – better known internationally as Sonny Chiba – combined his ferocious martial arts skills, understated intensity and gentle humour to forge an acting career that spanned six decades. Internationally, he was the face of karate; at home, one of Japan’s most beloved leading men. He has died aged 82.

Shinichi Chiba was born Sadaho Maeda in Fukuoka, the third of five children. His father was a pilot for the Imperial Army; his mother was a former athlete. Chiba shared his mother’s passion for track and field sports, winning the National Sports Festival of Japan during his third year of high school, before training for the Japanese Olympic Team. However, a debilitating hip injury, sustained while working a part-time construction job, would ultimately thwart the 20-year-old Chiba’s athletic ambitions. Studying at Nippon Sport Science University, Chiba redirected his passions towards martial arts and trained under legendary karate master Masutatsu Oyama.

At the age of 21, Chiba was scouted by Toei Studios, one of Japan’s premier film companies, and would appear as the lead in Invasion of the Neptune Men in 1961. While most famous for the mocking it received on comedy film-review show Mystery Science Theatre 3000, it nonetheless marked the start of a long career with Toei, under whom Chiba would star in more than 125 lead roles.

Chiba at the 2003 premiere of ‘Kill Bill’ in Hollywood

That same year Chiba also starred in Drifting Detective: Tragedy in Red Valley, the directorial debut of Kinji Fukasaku. It was under Fukasaku’s direction, Chiba would later state, that the actor formed “the skeletal bone structure” for his acting career. The two formed a long-lasting collaborative partnership that resulted in several of Chiba’s career highlights, such as Hiroshima Death Match (1973) and Shogun’s Samurai (1978).

This professional friendship would last the length of both men’s careers and allowed Chiba to expand his scope beyond the martial arts genre, starring opposite Vic Morrow in Fukasaku’s space opera Message from Space (1978), and alongside Glenn Ford and George Kennedy in the post-apocalyptic Virus (1980). Notably, both films broke the record for most expensive film to be made in Japan at the time of their release.

Chiba as Hattori Hanzo in ‘Kill Bill’

By 1969 Chiba had established his own training school for martial artists with dreams of the big screen, while further establishing himself as an icon of Japanese cinema in the role of the titular Karate Kiba (1973). However, it was with Shigehiro Ozawa’s The Street Fighter (1974), the first US release to be rated “X” for violence, that Chiba earned his international breakthrough. With its scenes of head-shattering punches and barehanded castration, the film would notably leave a lasting impression on a young Quentin Tarantino, who lavished it with praise in his script for True Romance (1993), before later casting Chiba in the role of Hattori Hanzo – master swordsmith and sushi bar-owner – in Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003). Unlike the character of Terry Tsurugi in The Street Fighter, this role notably allowed Chiba to showcase his considerable charisma and comedic skill to his western audience.

There is a prevailing tendency among Chiba’s biographers to overstress the fingerprint left on Chiba’s career by Tarantino; such a narrow and distinctly western retrospective risks misrepresenting Chiba as a sort of grindhouse cult actor. By the turn of the Eighties, Chiba had thoroughly cemented his place as a legend of Japanese cinema, having starred in more than 100 feature films. Now approaching middle-age, Chiba successfully transitioned away from the intense action roles of his youth, while also establishing himself as a stunt director and fight choreographer.

He had also apprenticed two of Japan’s freshest and most enduring talents, Hiroyuki Sanada and Etsuko Shihomi. Chiba would later cast Sanada in the lead role of his own directorial debut, Yellow Fangs (1990), with guidance provided by the now internationally renowned Fukasaku. Fittingly for a man who resisted all typecasting, the result was not a martial arts film, but instead a horror/adventure about a historical 1915 bear attack.

Chiba’s first marriage was to actress Yoko Nogiwa, with whom he had co-starred in the detective series Key Hunter (1969-1973). They had a daughter, the actress Juri Manase, before divorcing in 1994. Chiba is also survived by his sons Mackenyu Arata and Gordon Maeda, who also both pursued careers in acting.

Sonny Chiba, actor and martial artist, born 22 January 1939, died 19 August 2021