The news today is tragic. COVID has claimed the life of Sonny Chiba. Chiba was 82 years old.
Born Sadaho Maeda, he first entered films when he won a talent search that was sponsored by Toei Studios. The CEO of Toei renamed him Shinichi Chiba. He started his career largely appearing in crime dramas, playing police and gangsters. He found international stardom when he started to play roles that took advantage of his mastery of the martial arts, which eventually led to him playing the lead role in 1974’s The Street Fighter. With the success of that film, he also received a new name when the film’s U.S. distributor, New Line Cinema, advertised the film as starring “Sonny” Chiba. At the time, The Street Fighter was notorious for being the first film to receive an X-rating due to violence. Perhaps the MPAA was scandalized by the scene in which audiences were literally shown an x-ray of Chiba smashing open a man’s skull.
A good deal of Sonny Chiba’s appeal came from the fact that he actually was a skilled martial artist. He wasn’t faking it through camera trickery or fancy editing. His film fight were exciting because it was obvious that Chiba could do the same things in real life that he was doing in the movies. He was also a good actor, one who had an imposing screen presence and who was legitimately menacing when he scowled at an opponent. Before his death, Bruce Lee hoped to make a movie with Sonny Chiba and George Lazenby. Unfortunately, the day that Chiba arrived in Hong Kong to discuss the film was the same day that Lee died.
Quentin Tarantino was a fan, casting Sonny Chiba in the Kill Bill films. He was also beloved by the stoners who named a strain of potent cannabis after him. In Japan, Chiba was a tireless advocate for raising the level of martial arts techniques used in film and television. He worked up steadily from 1961 onward and he still has one more posthumous film, Bond of Justice: Kizu, set to be released at some point in the future. He held black belts in 6 different martials arts: Kyokushin, Ninjutsu, Gojo-ryu, Shorinji Kempo, Judo, and Kendo.
Sonny Chiba, R.I.P.