As reported by Variety, actor and martial arts icon Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba—best known to American audiences for his role in martial arts movies like The Street Fighter and for his appearance as surprisingly good-natured sword maker Hattori Hanzö in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill—has died. According to The Japan Times, Chiba contracted COVID-19 late last month and was undergoing treatment at home, but he was hospitalized on August 8 when he developed pneumonia and his condition worsened. Chiba was 82.
Born in Japan in 1938 as Sadaho Maeda (Shinichi Chiba was originally a stage name), Chiba was interested in gymnastics as a kid and attended Nippon Sport Science University in 1957. There, he studied martial arts under karate master Masutatsu “Mas” Oyama (who was essentially the archetype of a martial arts master for generations, serving as the inspiration for Ryu in Street Fighter and getting a manga, an anime, and a trilogy of live-action films starring Sonny Chiba about his life). In the ‘60s, Chiba was discovered by historic movie studio Toei, which put him in a series of tokusatsu TV shows (basically effects-driven genre stuff). His first movie role was the 1961 superhero film Invasion Of The Neptune Men, followed shortly by Drifting Detective: Tragedy In The Red Valley—the first of many crime movie for Chiba.
By the ‘70s, Chiba had started his own school for stunt performers and actors in martial arts movies, but it wasn’t until 1973's Karate Kiba that he starred in a martial arts-focused movie of his own. An edited version of the film was later released in the U.S. as The Bodyguard, with one of the changes being an opening quote falsely attributed to a bible verse—you know it even if you haven’t seen The Bodyguard, because Quentin Tarantino reused it in Pulp Fiction as a nod to Sonny Chiba (it begins “The path of the righteous man…”).
A year later, Chiba starred in his international breakout film, The Street Fighter, which New Line Cinema distributed to English-speaking audiences (establishing China as a martial arts icon around the world). The first movie to get an X rating exclusively because of violence, The Street Fighter uses a gimmick where a particularly devastating hit cuts to an X-ray of the victim’s skull as it is smashed, and it’s as effective today as it was then:
Chiba continued diligently working for decades after that, appearing in The Fall Of Ako Castle, G.I. Samurai, The Yagyu Conspiracy, and period TV drama Shadow Warriors—where he played real-life ninja Hattori Hanzö and many of his descendants, meaning his appearance as Hanzö in Kill Bill’s modern setting is actually a winking nod to his TV career (a very Tarantino joke). Kill Bill’s somewhat subtle tribute wasn’t Chiba’s only major role in a Western film, either. He also played a Yakuza boss in The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift, and an early scene in the 1993 film True Romance (written by Tarantino) involves a marathon of Sonny Chiba martial arts movies.
Chiba, who also held black belts in various styles of martial arts (including ninjutsu, shorinji kemp, judo, and kendo), is survived by three children who are also actors.