Action films

Shinichi ‘Sonny’ Chiba changed Japanese action movies


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Shinichi Chiba, better known to fans overseas as “Sonny” Chiba, first rose to prominence in the West as Japan’s response to Bruce Lee. As a martial arts master who protects a wealthy heiress from potential kidnappers in the 1974 action “The Street Fighter”, Chiba fought with a coiled style and heavily charged intensity that echoed the moves and personality on the screen of the Hong Kong megastar. But his explosive power and dirty hero performance made him more than just a Bruce Lee impersonator.

Distributed overseas by New Line Cinema, “The Street Fighter” and its sequels propelled Chiba to international stardom. In the process, he acquired a new first name, Sonny, assigned to him by New Line founder Robert Shaye, and an overseas cult that proved to be as enduring as Lee’s, though Chiba did. never acquired the status of “dead legend” from Lee.

After Chiba died in a hospital near Tokyo on August 19 at the age of 82 from pneumonia associated with COVID-19, there was a wave of tributes from fans and friends and colleagues industry around the world. One reason for the outpouring: Chiba had amassed an impressive number of movies, television, and stage credits over his six-decade career, while generating memorable hits across a range of genres, from sci-fi to period dramas. Additionally, Chiba’s great personality and mastery of martial arts overcame bad voice acting, stereotypical scripts and hack directors. Even in cheesy “chop-socky” films that were otherwise laughable, Chiba’s compelling presence and macho panache sent fans swaggering out of theaters – and kept his memory alive decades after their release.

Born in 1939 in Fukuoka Prefecture under the name Sadaho Maeda, he was one of five children. When he was 4, his father, a military test pilot, moved the family to Chiba Prefecture, just outside of Tokyo. An outstanding school athlete, the young Sadaho dreamed of going to the Olympics as a gymnast but an injury suffered during his second year at university forced him to change his plans. In 1959, he auditioned for talented Toei “New Face”, beating 26,000 other contestants, and the same year, as Shinichi Chiba, played the masked hero in “Seven Color Mask”, the first television show of Toei superhero. In 1961, he landed his first leading film role in Kinji Fukasaku’s first film, “Drifting Detective: Tragedy in the Red Valley”.

Chiba, who had studied under famous karate master Masutatsu “Mas” Oyama as a student, quickly became a newcomer able to do stunts without the help of stuntmen and found himself in demand for them. Toei’s iconic action movies and TV shows. He has also appeared in the studio’s international co-productions, including the 1966 sci-fi action film “Agent X-2: Operation Underwater” and the 1968-73 crime action television series “Key Hunter”, which both featured non-Japanese actors. in the main cast. In the studio hierarchy, however, Chiba ranks below megastars like Koji Tsuruta and Ken Takakura, who have secured the biggest roles in Toei’s popular gang action movies.

He went on to make an indelible impression as a savage gangster in “Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima” (1973), the second installment of Fukasaku’s five-part series based on actual gang wars in Hiroshima. post-war. That same year, he played the role of an anti-drug crusader cutting karate in “Bodyguard Kiba”, his first leading role in a martial arts film in nearly a decade, since his appearances on “Judo for Life.” from 1963 and its sequel from 1964.

With the success of “The Street Fighter” series, Chiba became Toei’s first action star in Japan and abroad to be known primarily for his deadly fists and feet – not for his skill with a Japanese sword. . However, Chiba didn’t limit himself to his karate moves – he eventually acquired black belts in six martial arts disciplines. In addition, in 1970 he created the Japan Action Club (JAC), a training school for stuntmen and action actors, who were rare in the studio at the time.

Feats of strength

Over the next two decades, Chiba brought his martial arts skills to films of various genres. Among his most memorable roles is that of a conductor in the 1975 action film “The Bullet Train” – which served as the model for “Speed,” the 1994 Jan De Bont thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra. Bullock; as a cold-eyed assassin in 1977’s “Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon”, which was shot on location in Hong Kong; and as a maverick police detective on Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture in Fukasaku’s 1977 film “Doberman Cop”. In the latest film, he rappels down the side of a 40-story building and smashes a window to save a singer from his mad admirer – a stunt reminiscent of Jackie Chan’s most mind-boggling exploits. He also expertly wields a Magnum.44 pistol, Harry Callahan’s favorite handgun from Clint Eastwood in the “Dirty Harry” movies.

Chiba has found another signature role as Yagyu Jubei, a one-eyed master swordsman who fights the enemies of shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu while serving as an unbeatable and unbeatable male ideal for his multitudes of fans. Yagyu first appears in “Shogun’s Samurai” (or “Yagyu Clan Conspiracy”), a 1978 film by Fukasaku in which Chiba jumps 20 meters from a cliff into a river, then in the follow-up film. 1981 “Samurai Reincarnation” and “The Yagyu Conspiracy”, a popular television series from 1978-79. Later, he played the character several times on the small screen.

Chiba also contributed to the ninja boom of the time with “Ninja Warriors”. In that 1980 Norifumi Suzuki action flick, he played the role of Shiranui Shogen, an ice cool ninja leader who is the hero’s nemesis, a young martial arts master played by Chiba’s protege. , Hiroyuki Sanada. While he doesn’t have to do much more than a wicked sneer and smirk, Chiba performs a stunt that begins with him supporting two ninja warriors on his shoulders in a human tower and ends with the warriors launching each other. in the air over their opponents as Chiba barely beats an eyelash.

Chiba has been the stunt coordinator on several films, starting with the 1981 martial arts action film “Roaring Fire”, in which he also starred. In 1990 he made his directorial debut with the 1990 true story action film “Yellow Fangs”, a box office flop that caused him to lose his home, his restaurant chain and the JAC, since he had paid most of his production budget himself.

Hanzo, revisited

Chiba later returned to the international spotlight in the first volume of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” (2003-04) as sushi chef and former sword-smith Hattori Hanzo, who reluctantly comes out of retirement to make a sword for Uma Thurman’s revenge. Beatrix Kiddo, aka The Bride. His character name is a nod to Hattori Hanzo whom he played as the ninja leader in the 1980 television series, “Shadow Warriors”. Although her role is relatively small, Chiba’s energy and charisma made a strong impression. (Certainly on Tarantino, who called him “the greatest actor who ever worked in martial arts movies.”) Additionally, although he never realized his ambition to cause a sensation in Hollywood, Chiba found late career fame with Andrew Lau in 1998’s “The Storm Riders” and other action movies and TV shows for the Chinese market.

In her second and final film as a director, 2007 “Oyaji”, Chiba played a ghost who returns from the afterlife to help her son, who is being extorted by punks, and her daughter, who is being abused. by her husband yakuza. His idea of ​​putting things back together, however, involves breaking their heads. In a review for The Japan Times, I commented that the then 68-year-old star performed his action scenes without “no breath, no spare tire, no squeaky knees – just Chiba administering. brutal justice with ageless power, authority and authority. costs.”

Chiba’s last screen appearance was in Ryuji Yamakita’s action flick “Bond of Justice: Kizuna”, due for release in October 2021 in the US, putting a spell on the action star’s career. most hardworking in Japan, and still one of the most famous in the world.

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