Sonny Chiba — the Japanese Martial Arts Legend you may never have heard of
Ever heard of Sonny Chiba?
If the answer is yes, chances are that you have been watching the films of Quentin Tarantino. In “True Romance”, written by Tarantino, the protagonist Clarence attends a Sonny Chiba double-feature. And “Kill Bill” features Sony Chiba himself in the role of legendary sword maker Hattori Hanzo, the person Uma Thurman visits to prepare for her revenge on Bill.
Chances are that — if you are not Japanese — your knowledge about Sonny Chiba ends there. At least, this was the case for me. Maybe it’s because I am European, and his movies never found his ways to my country. I’m not sure.
A long career
I decided to research Sonny Chiba a bit more. Turns out not only is he very well-known in his home country of Japan, he has also been very productive. When this article was written, Shin’ichi…or Sonny…Chiba has over 200 acting credits on IMDB, and his movie career was started in 1959. Also, he has produced and directed several movies.
You don’t want to pick a fight with Sonny Chiba. He holds black belts in jûdô, ninjutsu, kendô and shôrinji kenpô.
Sonny Chiba was born in 1939 in Fukoaka, Japan. As a teenager he was part of the Japanese Olympic gymnastics team, but had to end that career because of a back injury. While studying at university, he started practicing karate with Master Matsutatsu “Mas” Oyama. He was awarded his first black belt in 1965.
His film- and TV-career started at Toei. In 1961, Chiba worked with director Kinji Fukasaku for the first time, in “Wandering Detective: Tragedy in Red Valley”. They would work together several times during the years.
In the 1970’s, the movies of Bruce Lee became known worldwide. Sonny Chiba started a martial arts school for actors, known as “Japan Action Club”. In 1974, he starred in “The Street Fighter” — a role that made him one of the first international martial arts stars in the world.
“The Street Fighter” was a fairly brutal movie. It had several sequels, and during the 70’s and 80’s Chiba continued to star in many movies — mostly martial arts movies.
During the 1990’s and 2000’s, Chiba worked under the name Shin’ichi Chiba, but from 2007 he used the name J.J. Sonny Chiba.
So, what should you watch?
Having seen only a small number of all the movies Sonny Chiba has acted in, I would recommend the following (but — try to find the undubbed versions!):
I would also recommend ”GI Samurai” and ”Virus”. The latter haf an international cast, and is available for free on YouTube (I believe it’s in the Public Domain for som reason).