We are sad to learn today of the passing of Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, the legendary Japanese actor and martial artist who was best known to American audiences for The Street Fighter in the 1970s and a memorable appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill later in his career. The Japanese film icon passed away Thursday due to COVID-19 complications, according to his agent and manager, at the age of 82.
Chiba had an extremely prolific career in Japanese TV and cinema from the 1960s through the 2010s, and was still working in more recent years, well into his 80s. He broke into Japanese tokusatsu action TV programming in the early 1960s before appearing in the 1961 film Invasion of the Neptune Men, which would go on to be immortalized in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the 1990s. He held no fewer than six different black belts in a variety of martial arts disciplines, including several varieties of karate, along with ninjutsu, judo, kendo and kempo.
Chiba then broke through as an international star in the 1970s, starting with the 1974 release of The Street Fighter, which gave him his most iconic protagonist/antihero character Terry Tsurugi. The film was followed by three sequels released by New Line Cinema, and indeed it was New Line founder Robert Shaye who first gave Chiba the nickname “Sonny,” which he would go on to adopt for his entire international career.
Perhaps most famously to western audiences, however, Chiba reappeared in Quentin Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill Vol. 1 as the swordmaster-in-hiding Hattori Hanzo, a sushi chef who has attempted to flee from all the violence wrought over the decades by his weapons. He is of course ultimately coaxed out of retirement to craft a sword for protagonist The Bride (Uma Thurman), which she uses through the entire rest of the story to seek her revenge on the traitorous Bill (David Carradine). The inclusion of Chiba in the film was of course one of Tarantino’s many acknowledgements of martial arts cinema history, but Chiba also appeared in other American productions such as The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
The 2021 release of Bond of Justice: Kizuna will be Chiba’s final, posthumous film role, and the end of one of the most prominent martial arts careers ever.