Sonny Chiba, martial arts master and Kill Bill actor, dies at 82
Sinichi "Sonny" Chiba, one of the first Japanese actors to gain international fame through his martial arts skills, died Thursday of complications from COVID-19. He was 82.
His manager, Timothy Beal, confirmed the news to EW.
Born Sadaho Maeda in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1939, Chiba was the third child of a military test pilot. Four years later, the family moved to Kimitsu, in the Chiba prefecture, which would later become the source of the actor's stage name. Chiba was a gifted athlete in high school and college. It was at Nippon Sport Science University that Chiba began studying karate, earning his first-degree black belt in 1957. His study would continue after that, leading to his fourth-degree black belt in 1984. He also earned black belts in other martial arts disciplines like ninjutsu, shorinji kempo, judo, kendo, and goju-ryu karate.
Chiba's long acting career began in 1960, when he was discovered by a talent scout from the Toei film studio; it was a Toei executive who bestowed upon him the stage name "Sinichi Chiba." Chiba's first screen roles were on the TV shows Seven Color Mask and Messenger of Allah. His first martial arts film was 1973's Karate Kiba, and his international breakthrough came a year later with 1974's The Street Fighter. That was the film that introduced him to American audiences, via a dubbed version released Stateside by New Line Cinema. It was New Line founder Robert Shaye who further refined Chiba's stage name, giving him the American nickname "Sonny."
Chiba appeared in dozens of action films and TV shows over the subsequent decades, including a series called Shadow Warriors in which he played multiple generations of ninja characters each named Hattori Hanzo. Chiba reprised that role in Quentin Tarantino's 2003 film Kill Bill, in which Hanzo runs a sushi restaurant and crafts a special samurai sword for Uma Thurman's vengeful lead character.
That wasn't the only Chiba homage in Tarantino's filmography: Samuel L. Jackson's iconic Biblical monologue from Pulp Fiction has as much to do with a quotation from Karate Kiba as it does with scripture.
American audiences might also recognize Chiba from a cameo in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
Chiba was working right up until the end of his life. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had been set to star in a film titled Outbreak Z alongside Jesse Ventura and Wesley Snipes. He will make his posthumous final film appearance in Bond of Justice: Kizuna.