Multifaceted: Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba (right) brought his martial arts skills to movies in a range of genres, from sci-fi to period films such as "Samurai Reincarnation" with co-star Kenji Sawada (left).
Shinichi Chiba, best known to fans abroad as “Sonny” Chiba, first became famous in the West as Japan’s answer to Bruce Lee. Playing a martial arts master who protects a rich heiress from would-be kidnappers in the 1974 actioner “The Street Fighter,” Chiba fought with a coiled style and highly charged intensity that echoed the on-screen moves and persona of the Hong Kong megastar. But his explosive power and hard-edged, dirty-hero performance made him more than just a Bruce Lee imitator.
Distributed abroad by New Line Cinema, “The Street Fighter” and its sequels launched Chiba to international stardom. In the process, he acquired a new first name, Sonny, bestowed on him by New Line founder Robert Shaye, and an overseas cult following that proved as enduring as Lee’s, though Chiba never acquired Lee’s “dead legend” status.
After Chiba died in a hospital near Tokyo on Aug. 19 at age 82 from pneumonia associated with COVID-19, there was a rush of tributes from fans and industry friends, and colleagues around the world. One reason for the outpouring: Chiba had amassed a staggering number of film, TV, and stage credits in his six-decade career, while generating well-remembered hits in a range of genres, from sci-fi to period dramas. Also, Chiba’s big personality and martial arts mastery overcame bad dubbing, formulaic scripts, and hack directors. Even in cheesy “chop-socky” flicks that were otherwise laughable, Chiba’s riveting presence and macho panache sent fans swaggering out of the theaters — and kept his memory alive decades after their release.
Born in 1939 in Fukuoka Prefecture as Sadaho Maeda, he was one of five children. When he was 4 years old, his military test pilot father moved the family to Chiba Prefecture, just outside of Tokyo. An outstanding schoolboy athlete, young Sadaho dreamed of going to the Olympics as a gymnast but an injury suffered during his second year in college forced him to change his plans. In 1959, he passed a Toei “New Face” talent audition, beating out 26,000 other applicants, and that same year, as Shinichi Chiba, played the masked hero in “Seven Color Mask,” Toei’s first superhero TV show. In 1961, he landed his first lead film role in Kinji Fukasaku’s directorial debut, “Drifting Detective: Tragedy in the Red Valley.”
Chiba, who had studied under famed karate master Masutatsu “Mas” Oyama as a college student, was soon known as a newcomer who could do stunts without the assistance of stuntmen and found himself in demand for Toei’s signature action movies and TV shows. He also appeared in the studio’s international co-productions, including the 1966 sci-fi actioner “Agent X-2: Operation Underwater” and the 1968-73 crime-action TV series “Key Hunter,” both of which featured non-Japanese actors in the main cast. In the studio hierarchy, however, Chiba ranked beneath megastars like Koji Tsuruta and Ken Takakura, who got the biggest roles in Toei’s popular gang action films.
He went on to make an indelible impression as a wild-at-heart gangster in “Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima” (1973), the second installment in Fukasaku’s five-part series based on real-life gang wars in postwar Hiroshima. That same year, he starred as a karate-chopping antidrug crusader in “Bodyguard Kiba,” his first lead role in a martial arts film in nearly a decade, since his appearances in the 1963 “Judo for Life” and its 1964 sequel.
With the success of the “The Street Fighter” series, Chiba became Toei’s first action star both in Japan and abroad to be known primarily for his deadly fists and feet — not his skill with a Japanese sword. However, Chiba didn’t limit himself to his trademark karate moves: He eventually acquired black belts in six martial arts disciplines. Additionally, in 1970, he started Japan Action Club (JAC), a training school for stuntmen and action actors, who were in short supply at the studio at the time.
Feats of strength
Over the next two decades, Chiba brought his martial arts skills to films in a range of genres. Among his better-remembered roles were as a train conductor in the 1975 actioner “The Bullet Train” — which served as a template for “Speed,” the 1994 Jan De Bont thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock; as a cold-eyed assassin in 1977’s “Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon,” which was shot on location in Hong Kong; and as a maverick police detective from Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture in Fukasaku’s 1977 film “Doberman Cop.” In the last film, he rappels down the side of a 40-story building and breaks through a window to rescue a singer from her crazed admirer — a stunt that recalls the more hair-raising feats of Jackie Chan. He also expertly wields a.44 Magnum pistol, the sidearm favored by Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in the “Dirty Harry” films.
Chiba found another signature role as Yagyu Jubei, a one-eyed master swordsman who battles against the enemies of shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu while serving as an unflappable, unbeatable masculine ideal for his multitudes of fans. Yagyu first appears in “Shogun’s Samurai” (alternatively, “Yagyu Clan Conspiracy”), a 1978 film by Fukasaku in which Chiba makes a 20-meter leap from a cliff into a river, and then in the 1981 follow-up film “Samurai Reincarnation” and “The Yagyu Conspiracy,” a popular 1978-79 TV series. He later played the character several more times on the small screen.
Chiba also contributed to the era’s ninja boom with “Ninja Warriors.” In this 1980 Norifumi Suzuki action film, he starred as Shiranui Shogen, a cool-as-ice ninja leader who is the archenemy of the hero, a young martial arts master played by Chiba’s protege, Hiroyuki Sanada. Though not required to do much more than villainously sneer and smirk, Chiba executes a stunt that begins with him supporting two ninja warriors on his shoulders in a human tower and finishes with the warriors launching themselves through the air at their opponents as Chiba barely bats an eyelash.
Chiba served as stunt coordinator on several films, starting with the 1981 martial arts actioner “Roaring Fire,” in which he also starred. In 1990, he made his directorial debut with the 1990 true-story actioner “Yellow Fangs,” a box-office flop that lost him his home, his restaurant chain, and the JAC, since he had paid most of its production budget himself.
Later, Chiba soared back into the international spotlight in the first volume of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” (2003-04) as a sushi chef and former swordsmith Hattori Hanzo, who reluctantly comes out of retirement to make a sword for Uma Thurman’s revenge-bent Beatrix Kiddo, aka The Bride. His character name is a nod to the Hattori Hanzo he played like a ninja leader in the 1980 TV series, “Shadow Warriors.” Though his role was relatively small, Chiba’s energy and charisma made a big impression. (Certainly on Tarantino, who called him “the greatest actor who has ever worked in martial arts films.”) Also, though he never realized his ambition to make a major splash in Hollywood, Chiba found late-career fame starring in Andrew Lau’s 1998 “The Storm Riders” and other action movies and TV shows for the Chinese-language market.
In his second and last film as a director, the 2007 “Oyaji,” Chiba played a ghost who returns from the beyond to help his son, who is being extorted by punks, and his daughter, who is being abused by her yakuza husband. His idea of putting things right, however, involves busting heads. In a review for The Japan Times, I commented that the then-68-year-old star performed his action scenes with “no huffing and puffing, no spare tire, no creaky knees — just Chiba administering rough justice with ageless power, authority and cool.”
Chiba’s last screen appearance was in the Ryuji Yamakita actioner “Bond of Justice: Kizuna,” which is set for an October 2021 release in the United States, putting a period on the career of Japan’s hardest-working action star, and still one of the best-known worldwide.
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