COVID-19 has taken another Japanese actor renowned. And, although previous cases, like that of Ken Shimura, occurred when the pandemic had just started, the death of Sonny Chiba, announced a few hours ago, is one of those that is not understood. Because in August 2021, when a large part of the world population is already vaccinated, it is not understood how an 82-year-old man had not received the vaccination in Japan. The country, which boasts one of the greatest disorganizations that have been seen in this regard in terms of world leading nations, dismisses with frustration one of the heroes of the national cinema who was also known abroad.
Chiba caught COVID-19 in late July, but at his Kimitsu hospital in Chiba, they decided not to enter it, only to treat him for the illness while he was at home. Unfortunately, his situation worsened, he suffered pneumonia, and when he was admitted to the hospital on August 8, it was too late.
Sonny Chiba surely sounds like Kill Bill to you, a film in which Quentin Tarantino, a geek among geeks, decided to pay tribute to the legendary career of the Japanese actor. He did it by turning him, once again, into the legendary ninja Hattori Hanzo, but now retired and owner of a sushi restaurant in which he serves the protagonist. He was also the master sword forger who would make the heroine’s katana for revenge.
Tarantino knew his career because the American filmmaker has always been freaked out. And being an expert on old Japanese cinema, especially the kind that Sonny Chiba starred in, was like being a geek. Because the actor shot more than 125 films and was famous historical figures in all kinds of productions, such as Hattori Hanzo himself or the skilled samurai Yagyu Jubei.
He was the protagonist of tokusatsu-type science fiction productions, which we could summarize as Power Rangers-type productions (simplifying in an extreme way and bordering on heresy, but impossible to compare more accurately without extension for it). He also starred in many programs, series and movies as a detective. His combat skills, however, made him a regular in action movies. His interest in making Japanese movies impactful in terms of martial arts led him to found his own stunt and training company. It was the JAC (Japan Action Club), which over time became the Japan Action Enterprise (JAE). With this, he supported his nation so that, in Asia, not only the Chinese cinema, which was very dominant, would be the one that could offer a good combat spectacle.
His 1974 film, The street fighter, made him an international star. That same year it reached theaters in the United States with dubbing into English, a year later it was released in Denmark and in 1977 it reached theaters in countries such as France or Turkey. That movie would open his door to a great level of fame. Thus he received his nickname “Sonny”, which he decided to combine with his stage surname in Japan, “Chiba”, where he called himself Shinichi Chiba, although his real name at birth was Sadaho Maeda. Sonny’s nickname was given to him by Robert Shaye, the founder of New Line Cinema.
Later, other successful films with a good international response would arrive, such as Duel in karate, also in 1974, Sister Street Fighter, La venganza de Street Fighter o Panic on the Tokyo Express, the latter premiered in Spain on July 7, 1977. During the 70s and 80s he would be able to shoot dozens of films and series every year, demonstrating a capacity and energy that were available to few. . In 1978 he starred in Space Invaders, a film by the famous director Kinji Fukasaku, and in later years he was seen in other films released in Spain, such as Hunter in the dark, Eclipse in time, Extermination, The samurai sword or Eagle of steel III.
In the 90s, his work rate, for obvious reasons, began to drop, not only because of his age, but also because cinema had changed the way of producing movies. He did some premiere work in Japan, as well as the hit The Stormriders: Lords of Heaven and Earth and, in early 2000, Tarantino gave him that tribute we have talked about. That put him back on the agendas of Hollywood producers, who featured him in movies like Full throttle: Tokyo Race.
His last work was Bond of Justice: Kizuna, a film pending release that has an international cast and direction of the Japanese Ryuji Yamakita. Its premiere in the United States is scheduled for the month of October, but it is possible that, due to what happened, it will have a greater exposure than expected. In the film he shares the limelight with actors such as Cortney Palm, Jennifer Field or Tohoru Masamune.
Part of what helped him become a star was his passion for combat and martial arts. It was the kind of Rough and manly Japanese actor who is no longer styled today, as the male model in Japan has changed dramatically in recent decades. His profile, in his time, is what helped his cinema to stand out from that of martial arts from China. Because Chinese stars were known to fit a more streamlined and flexible profile like Bruce Lee’s, while Sonny Chiba was muscle and presence.
His career in martial arts led him to achieve great levels of mastery in all kinds of disciplines. He had black belts in six different martial arts. In kyokushin karate and ninjutsu he reached the fourth dan, while in goju-ryu karate, shorinji kempo and judo he reached the second dan. In kendo he was first dan. That strength that characterized him and ability to fight, helped him grow in film and television doing something that many actors of the time were not capable of showing on screen. Over time there were other interpreters who followed in his footsteps, although at present, as we said, it is not a type of interpreter profile that continues to be imposed on television.
After decades of leadership in the Chiba style, the series and productions that he starred in harshly and arrogance, they once again had handsome actors without much training. The absence of international stars from Japanese cinema is a good demonstration of how, really, that potential that many actors have is not being squeezed. Within what Chiba has done, only Takeshi Kitano could be mentioned as a reference, who has been an international star with great films behind him.
Sonny Chiba’s personal life was marked by two wives. He married Yoko Nogiwa in 1973. This actress was a little older than him, but their meeting on the television series Key Hunter caused sparks to fly between them. A firm relationship was consolidated that kept them together until 1994, in which they decided to divorce. By then, their daughter, Juri Manase, had already grown up, as she was born two years after the wedding. His daughter became an actress and could even be seen as one of the Crazy 88s from the first installment of Kill Bill. Unfortunately, Nogiwa passed away in 2017 at the age of 81 from lung cancer.
Chiba married Tamami Chiba for the second time in 1996, from whom he divorced in 2015. With her he had two children: Mackenyu Arata and Gordon Maeda, both actors with careers that, although they did not reach the legend of their father, they have led them to star in series and films of interest.
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