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Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, the Japanese action movie icon and martial artist who also starred in Hollywood films like Kill Bill and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, has died. He was 82.
Chiba’s manager, Keya Morgan, confirmed his death to The Hollywood Reporter and described Chiba as a “martial arts legend unsurpassed by any other in Japanese history.” Morgan went on to say, “His unique talents, charisma and mastery of the martial arts will live on for eternity.”
Late Thursday, Japan’s state broadcaster NHK attributed Chiba’s death to complications related to COVID-19.
An enduringly popular figure in Japanese cinema since the 1960s, Chiba rose to prominence for his extreme violence martial arts movies that became cult favorites in the west with devotees such as Quentin Tarantino and Keanu Reeves.
Born in Sadaho Maeda, Fukuoka prefecture, in 1939, Chiba first made his mark in TV and film after joining Toei Studios in 1959, where he took the stage name Shinichi Chiba. The action star’s decades-long career spanned countless projects, beginning in the early ’60s. That includes his debut as the lead in superhero series Seven Color Mask and the supporting role of an ex-reporter in the 1968 detective series Key Hunter. Throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Chiba remained a busy actor, appearing in multiple titles a year.
In the 1970s he became an international breakout star thanks to gangster martial arts film The Street Fighter, where he appeared in the lead role of Takuma (Terry) Tsurugi. Released in the U.S. by New Line Cinema, the film earned an X-rating due to its level of violence and spurred several sequels and spinoffs in which Chiba appeared. A year before that, he starred in 1973’s Battles Without Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima, which, as with Street Fighter, allowed him to show off his martial arts expertise.
Chiba worked on several notable American titles, including the one he is perhaps most famous for — Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. He starred as Hattori Hanzo, owner of a sushi restaurant and a retired samurai who crafts a sword for Uma Thurman’s character. Chiba’s role is a nod to one he played in the 1980s Japanese TV series Shadow Warriors. In Tarantino’s 1993 romantic crime movie True Romance, Christian Slater’s character Clarence Worley also sneaks off to a triple feature of Chiba’s Street Fighter films.
In 2006, he also appeared in the third installment of the Fast and Furious franchise, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, in which he also played a gangster, Yakuza boss Kamata, an uncle of the movie’s main villain.
Chiba attended Nippon Sport Science University in 1957 and after studying under a karate master earned a first-degree black belt before acquiring a fourth-degree belt two decades later, along with additional black belts in ninjutsu, shorinji kempo, judo, kendo and goju-ryu karate. In 1970, he launched Japan Action Club, now known as Japan Action Enterprise, in an effort to raise the level of martial arts techniques and sequences used in big- and small-screen projects.
Additionally, Chiba appeared in a stage play of Resident Evil, and had lead and supporting roles throughout his career in The Executioner, Bullet Train, Virus, The Bodyguard, Messages From Space, Drifting Detective: Tragedy in the Red Valley and Golgo 13.
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