Sonny Chiba, Japan’s brutal action legend

More violent and morally more ambivalent than Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba was an undisputed master of the gory fight scene. His action films have thrilled Asian cinema goers for half a century, and pushed the limits of what could be shown on screen.

In 1960, the legendary Toei film studio in Tokyo held a “new faces” contest, and discovered the 21 year old Sadaho Maeda. Maede was orginally from southern Japan, but he grew up in Kimitsu, not far from Tokyo. The studio renamed him Shinichi Chiba, and later that was changed to Sonny Chiba.

Chiba was a former gymnast and a contender for the Japanese olympics team, but had to give up his sporting career due to a back injury. He was trained in Noh, classical Japanese drama, and had learnt karate from Mas Oyama.  Chiba’s first success came in television scifi, but Toei studio decided to exploit his athletic abilities in action movies.  In 1963 and 64 he starred in his first martial arts films, Judo Life and Judo Hall Demon. Five years later he founded Japan Action Club to train film actors in the martial arts. TV was replacing cinema as the popular form of entertainment in Japan at the time, and the Japanese movie industry compensated by increasing the amount of violence and sex in its productions.

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Sonny Chiba in The Streetfighter (1974)

After seing Bruce Lee, Chiba decided he could do something similar. Toei studio cast him in The Streefighter (1974), an ultraviolent film by veteran director Shigero Ozawa. In the fifties Ozawa made mainly period films. In 1964 he changed territory, however, and shot the first authentic Yakuza film (yakuza= japanese mafia), Bakuto, or The Gambler. The new violent Yakuza movies boosted Ozawa’s career, and soon a new genre was born. Rumour has it that the real-life Yakuza took an interest in films, and later put pressure on the film studios.

Like many low-budget flicks in the mid 70s, The Streetfighter capitalized on the new Bruce Lee-hysteria. Lee had died suddenly the previous year, spawning a race to find his successor. The number of copycats mushroomed. Chiba had actually traveled to Hong Kong to meet Lee, but the movie icon had just passed away. In stead, Chiba took it upon himself to become a martial arts star in his own right.

The Streefighter features Chiba as Terry Tsutrugi, a karate champion who helps to spring the condemned murderer, Juno, from death row. However, when Terry isn’t paid the murderer’s siblings suffer. Terry later refuses to work for the Yakuza, and is forced to help a rich heiress who is threatened by the gangsters. The yakuza then recruit Juno to avenge his siblings, and in the end there is a show down between Terry and the man he freed.

There were a number of Streetfighter-sequels, and the films became Chiba’s international breakthrough as a movie star. He eventually  starred in over 120 movies for the Toei film studio, and won numerous awards for acting in more serious Japanese productions. In the 2000s, he rose to  superstardom after being featured in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. At the age of 69, in 2008, Chiba suffered an asthma attack on the set of a TV series, and decided to retire from action roles.

Like Bruce Lee, the name Sonny Chiba was meant only for an international audience. In his home country of Japan Chiba is now known under his original name, Sadaho Maeda. While Bruce Lee only starred in a handful of films after he became famous, Chiba’s career spans decades and includes films of many genres. He was inducted into the B-movie Hall of Fame in 2004.

“An actor’s body should be full of emotions, whether it is happiness or sorrow, pain or joy, enraged or elated. You have to express yourself with your whole body. Japanese actors don’t normally do this. What I’m doing as an action star is what every actor should be doing. Action is drama” – Sonny Chiba

The Streetfighter (1974) is now public domain according to archive.org:

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