Japanese actor Shinichi Chiba, known abroad as Sonny Chiba, who dazzled action movie fans around the world with martial arts prowess, died Thursday at a hospital near Tokyo due to pneumonia associated with COVID-19, his agency said. He was 82.
Following his infection with the coronavirus in late July, Chiba initially stayed at home but was hospitalized in Chiba Prefecture near the capital on Aug. 8 and received an oxygen supply. The actor had not been vaccinated, the agency said.
Chiba was born as Sadaho Maeda in Fukuoka in 1939, and moved to Chiba Prefecture when he was 4.
While attending Nippon Sport Science University in the late 1950s, Chiba suffered an injury that prevented him from competing in the Tokyo Olympics as a gymnast. He later earned a black belt in the Kyokushin school of full-contact karate and began his acting career.
After being discovered in a talent search, he joined Toei Studios in 1959 and took the moniker Shinichi Chiba.
He attracted nationwide attention with his role in the TV detective drama series “Key Hunter,” which began in the late 1960s.
In his early movies, Chiba made the rare move of performing many of his own action sequences rather than relying on stunt doubles. For this reason, especially overseas, he has been compared to martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
In 1970, he founded the Japan Action Club, a training facility that produced young action stars including actor Hiroyuki Sanada and actress Etsuko Shihomi, who appeared alongside Chiba in many movies and TV shows. The company was later renamed Japan Action Enterprise Co.
The 1974 karate movie “Gekitotsu! Satsujin ken,” which was released in the United States as “The Street Fighter” with an X rating for its extreme violence, brought Chiba his first taste of overseas fame.
Chiba also appeared in Japanese samurai movies and TV drama series. In the series “Yagyu Ichizoku no Inbo” (“Yagyu Conspiracy”), Chiba portrayed the one-eyed swordsman Yagyu Jubei, which became his signature role.
The appeal of his work has endured among overseas audiences, garnering fans among film directors and actors such as Keanu Reeves and Jackie Chan.
After several decades of appearing in films mostly seen domestically, Chiba found a larger overseas audience thanks to film director and martial arts fan Quentin Tarantino.
In “True Romance” (1993), Christian Slater’s character watches a Chiba triple feature, and in the director’s blockbuster “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” (2003), Chiba appears as sword-maker-turned-sushi chef Hattori Hanzo, a nod to the character he played in “Shadow Warriors” (“Kage no Gundan”), a Japanese TV series in the 1980s.
In addition to karate, Chiba was an expert in the Japanese martial art of Shorinji kempo and skilled at acrobatics while on horseback.
In an interview, Chiba described filming a scene from a “Key Hunter” episode in which he jumped from a moving car to a light airplane as it took off from the runway, calling it the most dangerous stunt of his career.
“As I got a grip on the plane, my left leg became stuck in the steering wheel (of the car). I thought I was going to die,” he said.
Other popular Chiba films from the 1970s include one of the yakuza story series “Jinginaki Tatakai” (“Battles Without Honor and Humanity”) and “Sengoku Jieitai” (“G.I. Samurai”), a story about members of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force who join samurai battles after being sent back in time to the late 1500s.
Chiba married actress Yoko Nogiwa in 1972, though the couple divorced in 1994. He remarried Tamami Chiba in 1996, which also ended in divorce in 2015.
He is survived by three children, Juri Manase (46), Mackenyu Arata (24) and Gordon Maeda (21), who are also actors.
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