RIP Sonny Chiba, Martial Arts Superstar

RIP Sonny Chiba, Martial Arts Superstar
Sonny Chiba as sword-maker Hattori Honzo in Kill Bill Vol. 1. (Image: Miramax)

Sonny Chiba was the anti-Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee was all about finesse with his martial arts; he moved like the proverbial butterfly who stung like a bee. When Sonny Chiba first made it big in America as Takuma Tsurugi in The Street Fighter films, he was a wasp — angry, spoiling for a fight, and reveling in the blood he drew and bones he broke.

But Sonny Chiba was so much more than just his Street Fighter character. Over the course of a career that spanned over 60 years, he played superheroes, scientists, assassins, samurai, emperors, detectives, soldiers, and more. He starred in several comic adaptations, including 1977’s Golgo 13 and the 1998 blockbuster Storm Riders, based on Wing-Shing’s manhwa of the same name. He appeared in several films in the West, too, including

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Sushi Girl, Iron Eagle III, and the role he’s likely best known for in the U.S.: Hattori Hanzo, the legendary swordmaker who arms Uma Thurman’s Beatrix in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Born Sadaho Maeda in 1938 in Fukuoka, Japan, Sonny Chiba was a star even when he wasn’t on TV or film screens. He holds six black belts in six martial arts, including kendo, judo, and ninjutsu(!). In 1970, he started his own martial arts school for actors and stuntpeople named the Japan Action Club. He was the martial arts choreographer for dozens of film and TV projects, only some of which he starred in. Chiba was also a director, producer, and theatre actor, including in a stage play of Biohazard video game series, better known in the U.S. as Resident Evil.

Tragically, Chiba was another victim of Covid-19, which Oricon reports that he had been battling for some time. Although he was being treated in a Chiba prefecture hospital, he also developed pneumonia, and ultimately succumbed to it earlier today. He is survived by his three children, and the cinematic legacy he left behind will never be forgotten.