Remembering Sonny Chiba, the great Japanese action star whose perpetually cool career spanned six decades.
There’s a scene in Return of the Street Fighter (1974) where Sonny Chiba punches a guy in the back of the head so hard that the guy’s eyeballs pop out. The special effect, in retrospect, looks bad. It’s like they’ve stuck ping pong balls on his face with strands of sticky pink putty. But watching that on grainy VHS as a kid obsessed with martial arts movies, it stopped me in my tracks. I’d never seen someone get their eyes punched clean out their sockets before. It was amazing. I whooped with delight, I rewound the tape and watched it again and again. It’s maybe no wonder I didn’t have many friends back then but damn, I knew how to have fun.
I’m not sure exactly why (probably a question for my therapist) but I always loved video violence – the harder, the better – and to my unformed young mind, two guys duffing each other up was as good as it got. Of course, quite often the movies held back. There’d be a duffing up but then the hero would declare victory and leave the other guy gasping on the floor, clutching his non-fatal wounds. I’d later learn that this is, in part, down to the philosophical side of martial arts. Many films had deeper messages and promoted religious or spiritual values. Violence for the sake of violence wasn’t what it was all about at all. Unless you were talking about the Street Fighter movies.
These movies didn’t flinch. The bad guys getting their eyes popped out was only the start of it. Over the course of the trilogy, dudes get their dicks ripped off, their hearts pulled out, their throats torn out, their skulls shattered, their bodies burned alive, and the deaths keep coming. They were probably the nastiest, scrappiest martial arts films available and, at the heart of them was the imposing presence of a single Japanese man: Sonny Chiba.
He didn’t have the classical ‘heroic’ looks of his Chinese kung fu counterparts. He was rugged and looked rough around the edges; a little bit stocky, disarmingly masculine, his eyes permanently ablaze with some kind of unspoken dark fury. He was perfect for a series of films about a single-minded killing machine hellbent on mayhem. And, if you watched the English dub, he did all of this while being called ‘Terry’ (which would normally take the threat out of anything).
The Street Fighter series was the first opportunity for most westerners to see Sonny Chiba in action, thanks to New Line Cinema’s attempt to ride the martial arts boom of the early 70s. With films like Five Fingers of Death (King Boxer) and Enter The Dragon chopping their way through the box offices of America, distributors were queuing up at the door of Asian studios like Shaw Bros and Golden Harvest, clamouring for whatever they could get their hands on. New Line – at the time a fledgling company with a penchant for ‘shock’ cinema like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the John Waters films – felt they were on to a winner when they picked up The Street Fighter and they were right. It put them on the map and helped make a name internationally for Chiba too.
When I say that, I mean New Line quite literally made a name internationally for him too by christening him ‘Sonny Chiba’ on the grounds that the stage name he’d been using in Japan – Shinichi Chiba – was still too difficult for American audiences (who’d doubtless choke on their popcorn if they tried to pronounce his real name, Sadaho Maeda!). What’s endearing about this otherwise mildly xenophobic story is that he was so pleased with the name, he continued to use Sonny for the rest of his career.
Still, despite enjoying the name the Street Fighter movies gave to him, Chiba – as a gentleman martial artist and black belt holder in karate, ninjutsu, judo, kenpo and kempo – disliked the films’ content, specifically their ghoulish karate-based hyperviolence, which he felt went against the spirit of martial arts. While he accepted that the films launched him to superstardom, he had already clocked up some fifteen years’ worth of roles by the time they were released, primarily for the Toei Company in Japan and appreciated some of these more. He was the lead in several Tokusatsu monster movies and moved into the increasingly popular Yakuza genre as the Seventies dawned, specialising in tough-talking anti-heroes similar to the kinds of roles Charles Bronson (who coincidentally, also appeared in a film called The Streetfighter in 1975) often took in the west.
The Yakuza grue and high-octane karate was mostly just his 1970s output but it’s this era that remains his best-known work outside of Japan. It’s kind of a shame because it was often badly dubbed, unsympathetically edited and outrageously mis-sold in the west (for example, Slaughter! Evil Fist!  got remixed and remarketed in the US as Soul Of Bruce Lee to ride the Bruceploitation wave). As a result, there’s a perception that Chiba’s films are somehow ‘bad’ or camp or cheap, and – outside of hardcore fans – this has only recently started to change, as more have become available in their original versions on Blu-Ray.
Chiba, again like Charles Bronson, was a far more versatile actor than he often got credit for. With well over a hundred major roles to his name, he accomplished far more than just being a dick-ripping eye-popping hardcase. He constantly challenged himself to work in genres outside whatever comfort zone he was starting to form and the fact that he was active in both films for sixty years gave him plenty of opportunities to diversify.
Beyond the stereotypical image, Chiba appeared in everything from period drama and Samurai/chanbara films to surrealist arthouse to gonzoid horror. Sometimes, in the case of films like Ninja Wars (1982), all of those things combined in one. Films like this, Samurai Reincarnation (1981) and Wolf Guy (1975) come from an era where Japan’s film industry was off-the-rails and extremely prolific, where even mainstream films were often intense and strange and adult; a world away from 2021’s infantilised cinematic landscape. To lose yourself in Chiba’s filmography is to enter a no-holds-barred kind of creativity that still feels slightly forbidden while also offering a pop culture temperature test for the past sixty years.
Unlike many stars, who fall out of fashion, Chiba spent a six-decade life in art staying not just relevant but also at the height of cool. Few actors successfully cross the generation gap like that. Ironically, one of the only Chiba projects that flopped at the box office was his sole directorial effort Yellow Fangs (1990), a lavish passion project about turn-of-the-century bear trappers that – while technically assured and not without merit – perhaps indicated that Chiba’s rightful place was in front of the camera, where he rarely failed to delight audiences.
Outside of film, Chiba also amassed an incredible body of TV work, including the long-running Shadow Warriors saga, absolutely essential for anyone studying Ninjology. Chiba played several generations of ninja characters spinning off from Hattori Hanzō from 1980 to 1985 in a show that was loaded with intrigue and mystery and incredible ninjing. In fact, it’s from this show that serial plagiarist Quentin Tarantino took some inspiration for Kill Bill, inviting Chiba to reprise his Hattori Hanzō role for a whole new generation of filmgoers.
Towards the end of his career, Chiba could often be found popping up in unlikely places like The Fast & The Furious 3: Tokyo Drift, quirky American indie thriller Sushi Girl or the magnificently wacky Survive Style 5+, often as a nod from the directors to his legendary status. It also gave him a chance to exercise his comedic skills, something that really makes it look like he was enjoying himself. That’s harder to see when he’s burning up the screen with rage in his Seventies films but feels like a gentler way to play out the last few years of his career.
Offscreen, he founded the Japan Action Club – an association of stuntmen and martial artists dedicated to raising the standards of onscreen action in Japanese films – which shows his dedication not just to genre filmmaking but the oft-overlooked craft behind it. The Japan Action Club (rebranded as the Japan Action Enterprise after Chiba was forced to sell it off in the Nineties) boasts several hundred members and provides services to many of the major Japanese film and TV action productions. While Chiba himself may not have been involved for some time, it’s nice to think that his teachings and his high standards when it comes to action are still being passed down to a whole new generation of stunt performers and fighters.
It seems hard to believe that, on 18th August 2021, such an evergreen presence has now left us; but the art that Sonny Chiba left behind is something anyone would be proud of. Rather than being sad at his passing, his vast accomplishments are something that should be celebrated. He was a true master of his craft and I can only hope that his legacy and the way it’s appraised will only continue to grow as more people discover his films. If you’re reading this and haven’t had the pleasure yet, then well… prepare for your own eyes to pop right out like that poor dude in Return of the Street Fighter. You’re in for some very special punches.
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