The martial arts world lost a legend this week with the passing of Sonny Chiba. Though probably best known to North American audiences as Hattori Hanzö in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Chiba’s career spanned more than six decades and hundreds of onscreen credits. Throughout the 1960s, Chiba made no less than 50 movies and TV shows in his home country of Japan—and that was before his international breakthrough in the ’70s. The guy worked.
Often compared to Chinese martial arts superstar Bruce Lee, Chiba had trademarks that were very much his own. He was meaner, dirtier, and his movies were more violent than those of his contemporaries. Chiba even has the distinction of starring in the first movie to be rated “X” based on violence alone. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Chiba’s work frequently gets shout-outs in Tarantino’s blood-drenched kung fu epics and grindhouse-worshipping pulp romances. Chiba reigned supreme throughout the ’70s, producing a slew of karate classics that were as gory as they were angry, ingesting street-level, gangster-movie fury to the genre.
But we don’t expect you to watch 200 movies this weekend. There’s only so much time. Still, we wanted to give our readers a sense of the breadth of his work, highlighting classics like The Street Fighter as well as stylish schlock like Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope and Doberman Cop. On screen, Chiba simmered with rage, pushing audiences against the wall like they were so many nameless goons. So protect your midsection, and for the love of God, don’t let your throat get ripped—here are five movies to honor the late, great Sonny Chiba.
Sonny Chiba gives the martial arts world their own Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson-style antihero with The Street Fighter. The first film to be rated “X” because of violence doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Chiba is a hungry dog on the loose as the mercenary Takuma Tsurugi, who pits street punks against the yakuza because as Tsurugi puts it: “I hate punks worse than anything, and I would love to see the mob destroyed!” Once Chiba gets the scent of blood, it’s clear that only vengeance will satiate his rabid attack. The movie escalates a series of double-crosses, spaghetti-western style stand-offs, and brutal hand-to-hand bouts over a lean, 90-minute runtime. But as the saying goes, it’s not over until Chiba rips a throat, and, boy, does he ever. [Matt Schimkowitz]
Availablility: The Street Fighter is available to rent on Amazon. However, the version on Amazon, at least, is pretty poor, including such interruptions as reel changes. Perfect for the grindhouse atmosphere, but for a proper transfer, check out the Shout! Factory Blu-ray.
Please, don’t let the delightfully clunky English-language title fool you. This unbelievably stylish, savage, and salacious exploitation pastiche follows Chiba into Death Wish territory—except, you know, a version of Death Wish about a werewolf who doesn’t transform and is fighting a phantom tiger. Wolf Guy is truly an Enraged Lycanthrope, but it has the flourishes that make movies like Don Siegel’s The Killers so captivating. The subject matter is tough—revolving around the gang-rape of a young woman by a psychedelic rock band and leading to a massive, international conspiracy and drug ring—and told with the vibrant and lurid neon of noir, whip-fire camera movements, and a heroin-tinged score that’s jazzy, psychedelic, and weirdly subdued at times. At the center is Chiba, a frayed wire ready to shock, showing neither remorse nor pity for those who stand in his way. [Matt Schimkowitz]
Availability: One of the rarest Chiba films is now readily available for free on Kanopy. The transfer is crisp, the colors are tight—by all means, watch this tonight!
Kinji Fukasaku’s game-changing five-part Battles Without Honor And Humanity series had an impact on Japanese cinema similar to that of the Godfather movies in the U.S., launching a new wave of gritty crime dramas based on real conflicts that purported to expose the shocking truth about the country’s notorious yakuza gangs. Most of the Battles Without Honor And Humanity movies focus on a single character, but the second installment is a standalone entry charting the rise and fall of a minor gangland figure played by Kinya Kitaoji. Shin’ichi Chiba (he wouldn’t get the English nickname “Sonny” for another year) plays the heavy, the psychotic son of a high-ranking yakuza out to prove that he can be just as intimidating and violent as his old man. Lady Snowblood herself, Meiko Kaji, co-stars in this tale of underworld intrigue and savage turf wars, professional gamblers and hired killers, set against the hardscrabble backdrop of postwar Hiroshima. [Katie Rife]
Availability: Battles Without Honor And Humanity: Deadly Fight In Hiroshima is available as a digital rental on YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes, and can be streamed free with ads on Tubi. Arrow Video also put out a very nice boxed set of the entire series back in 2015.
Despite his straw hat and the pet pig he carries around everywhere, Chiba’s character in Doberman Cop, Okinawan detective Joji Kano, is nobody’s fool. (The ladies seem to like the pig, first off.) Nicknamed both “Doberman” and “Tarzan” for his macho attitude and dirty tactics, Kano is summoned to the big city at the beginning of the movie to investigate the case of an island girl who disappeared in Tokyo’s seedy nightlife district. While he’s there, he proves himself more adept than the Tokyo cops who dismiss him as an ignorant bumpkin, tracking a pyromaniac serial killer and shooting bad guys in the face like a Japanese Dirty Harry. Chiba re-teamed with his Hiroshima Death Match director Kinji Fukasaku for this film, which is based on a popular manga series. The tones of the two movies couldn’t be more different, however: Where Hiroshima Death Match is a serious prestige drama, Doberman Cop is downright goofy at times, with a jazzy score that lends an ironic edge to the grisly violence. Both are gritty, street-level films, however, and both share an anti-establishment attitude that’s very 1970s. [Katie Rife]
Sonny Chiba made his share of dramas, to be sure. But what really solidified his reputation abroad were outrageous martial-arts flicks like The Executioner. Rushed into production after the worldwide success of The Street Fighter, The Executioner is a combustible blend of broad comedy, over-the-top violence (the scene where a guy kicks another guy in the back of the head so hard that his eyeballs pop out is a classic), and exploitation sleaze. Chiba stars as a private investigator who’s ostensibly been trained in the subtle arts of ninjutsu; he’s better at curb stomping and cracking skulls than stealth attacks, however, and those skills come in handy when he joins a team of mercenaries tasked with taking down the drug trade in Japan. That’s a big ask, but here it’s mostly a framework on which to hang brutal punch-outs and naked women throwing themselves at Chiba, making The Executioner a wild throwback to the grindhouses of yore. [Katie Rife]