A Tribute to Sonny Chiba (1939-2021)

The action film world has lost an icon.

Sonny Chiba, the Japanese martial arts legend whose film The Street Fighter became the stuff of legends when it was the 1st film to get an “X” rating for violence, had died at the age of 82 after testing positive for coronavirus.

With a career spanning over six decades, Chiba is considered to be one of the most internationally recognized Japanese action stars in the world with his use of karate and kenjutsu in his prolific career.

Sonny Chiba was born Sadaho Maeda on January 22, 1939 in Fukuoka, Japan. His father was a military test pilot and he was the third of five children, including actor brother Jiro Chiba. During his days in junior high, Chiba excelled in sports, particularly gymnastics. After an injury caused him to lose a chance to be on the Japanese Olympic team, his life changed while studying in university.

It was there where he met karate legend Masatatsu “Mas” Oyama, a Korean-born Japanese master who began training China in his art of Kyokushin-kai Karate. On October 15, 1965, he received his 1st-dan black belt in the art. In 1960, he was discovered as a “New Face” talent for Toei Company. He would be called “Shinichi Chiba” and his acting career began with the tokukatsu series Seven Color Mask.

His experiences in television and film would lead him in 1970 to form his own training school for aspiring actors and stunt performers. The Japan Action Club as it would be called would offer lessons on stunts and fight choreography. During this time, Chiba continued to make films such as the Karate Kiba films and Battle Without Honor and Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima in 1973.

In 1974, his martial arts film The Street Fighter was picked up to be released in the United States by Robert Shaye’s New Line Cinema, at the time only a distribution company. However, the MPAA gave the film an “X” rating not because of nudity or sex, but because of its violent content. Kill scenes involved a man getting castrated by Chiba’s bare hands and Chiba ripping the throat off another opponent to say the least. The film surprisingly did well enough despite the rating that New Line Cinema picked up two sequels, Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge as well as the spin-off Sister Street Fighter. Upon the U.S. release, New Line changed Shinichi Chiba’s name to “Sonny Chiba” to gain an international audience. This was a practice Western distributors would do to ensure international recognition for the actors in the films.

Two of Chiba’s JAC team, Hiroyuki Sanada and Etsuko Shihomi would gain fame in the late 70s and early 80’s on an international front due to their collaborations with Chiba. Sanada would star in 1982’s Roaring Fire with New Line calling him “Duke Sanada” and with Sister Street Fighter, New Line would shorten Etsuko’s name to just “Sue Shiomi”. While Shihomi would retire from acting in 1986 after marrying pop star Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi and become a floral arranger, Sanada, now credited under his real name, continues success as an internationally known actor, recently appearing as Hanzo Hisashi/Scorpion in Mortal Kombat.

Chiba continued success as an actor in Japanese martial arts and fantasy action films. In 1992, he made his Hollywood debut opposite Louis Gossett Jr. as a former Japanese WWII pilot who teams up with Gossett’s Chappy Sinclair in Aces: Iron Eagle III. He would go on to have a successful international career, teaming up with the late Roddy Piper in Immortal Combat to appearing in 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift as the Yakuza boss uncle of the antagonist DK. He would even train Uma Thurman in Kenjutsu and play a descendance of the legendary ninja Hanzo Hattori in the first Kill Bill movie in 2003 alongside fellow JAC member and current leader of the team, Keiji Ohba.

In 2009, while on the set of an action series in Japan, Chiba suffered an asthma attack. Rethinking his plan, he had decided to continue as an actor but no longer doing action roles. He also made the decision to revert back to his birth name while acting in Japan but because international audiences would known him as “Sonny Chiba”, he added a slight change to the name and thus became “J.J. Sonny Chiba”, the “J.J.” standing for “Justice Japan”. He also had a credit as a director with the pseudonym “Rindo Wachinaga”.

Chiba is survived by his second wife, Tamami, his sons Mackenyu Arata and Gordon, and daughter Juri Manase, from his first marriage.

WorldFilmGeek sends its condolences to the family of Sonny Chiba aka Sadaho Maeda. Here is YouTube user Dan Chup‘s tribute to Sonny Chiba as we saw goodbye to this action icon. RIP Sadaho Maeda…Viva Chiba!

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