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Sonny Chiba Was the Portrait of the Asian Anti-Hero

Japan’s ultimate badass leaves behind a remarkable legacy in TV, film and martial arts — and an indelible mark on Asian identity and representation

The first time I ever laid eyes on Sonny Chiba was in the dim light of the living room, late at night, while sitting on the couch with my dad. My mom hated violent martial arts movies, and the twinkle in my dad’s eye as she went upstairs to turn down suggested I was in for a special treat.

That treat was Sonny Chiba’s seminal X-rated 1974 movie, The Street Fighter. 

I was only 11 at the time, but even by that age, I’d seen my fair share of vintage Bruce Lee, looking sly, collected and always in control as he dismantled his enemies. But Chiba was something different altogether. I couldn’t stop staring at his face, which seemed possessed by a demon when he fought — all wild eyes, grimaces and psychopathic grins. And unlike Lee’s graceful, cat-like movements, Chiba seemed more content to swing with the fury of a bull on cocaine, breaking arms and ripping off testicles.

In other words, The Street Fighter was the first time I saw an Asian man depicted with brutal, utterly badass glory. And even after two decades of Hollywood martial arts films, and stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li going mainstream in the U.S., no one has replaced Chiba in my heart as the coolest tough guy in Asian filmic history.

It makes this week’s news all the more heartbreaking: Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, died on August 19, 2021, after battling COVID complications for several weeks in hospital. He was 82, and he leaves behind a legacy that is hard to distill into highlights.

Chiba was born Sadaho Maeda in Fukuoka, Japan on January 22, 1939, and he began training in martial arts (as well as artistic gymnastics) when he was 18 years old at Nippon Sport Science University. Chiba’s start in fighting was auspicious: He was mentored by Masutatsu “Mas” Oyama, a Kyokushin karate legend who famously wrestled bulls. In addition to securing a black belt in karate, Chiba became an expert in ninjutsu, kempo, judo and kendo — all of which would influence his future fight scenes.

He didn’t plan on becoming an action movie star, but a series of successful talent-search auditions led him into the offices of Japanese film studio Toei, where the CEO anointed the young Maeda with a stage name: Shinichi Chiba. It was the launch of a film and television career spanning half a century, fueled by the unmatched physicality and charisma that made Chiba a trailblazer.

In a 2007 interview with Jonathan Ross, Chiba notes that Japanese actors in the 1960s didn’t fully commit to action filmmaking, instead playing the roles halfheartedly and using stuntmen to stage fights rather than training themselves. Through this frustration, Chiba found his own identity as a performer, blending emotion and violence into compelling portraits of broken but sympathetic men. “For me, the most enjoyable role to play is the bad guy. The Street Fighter was a bad guy. But I particularly like the bad guy. I thought the character was a lovable man,” he told Ross.

For me, as a Korean-American millennial, absorbing the surge of kung-fu flicks in the 2000s was the closest thing to witnessing proper representation of Asians in entertainment. But while Jet Li often portrayed the strong, silent hero, and Jackie Chan served as the kung-fu reincarnation of Charlie Chaplin, nobody took on the mantle of the borderline toxic anti-hero that Chiba portrayed so well.

He was, as superfan Ross notes, the “baddest, assiest, bad-ass” of them all. Uncharacteristically tall and broad-shouldered for an Asian star, Chiba moved less “like water” and more like a Mack truck, ripping throats with Shakespearean flair. His films in the 1970s and 1980s created a distinct archetype of Asian masculinity. And I’d argue that nobody has replicated that energy, even in modern times.

So it was a thrill to see him get properly famous in the West after 150 films, thanks to his portrayal of Hattori Hanzo, a mysterious sword maker, in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series. Tarantino himself was a Chiba megafan, even writing a line of dialogue in his 1993 thriller True Romance to declare that Chiba is “bar none, the finest actor working in martial arts movies today.” Played with goofy wit and an undercurrent of menace, the Hanzo role gave new life to Chiba’s legend.

That legend continues to live on, not just in Asian films and countless hearts like mine, but also through the new-school actors who play martial-arts badasses. That includes Keanu Reeves — John Wick himself! — who couldn’t stop muttering “oh my god” and giggling when Chiba surprised him during a Japanese TV interview. “Character, and action. You brought it together. That’s tough. There was always heart,” Reeves told Chiba.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone replicating Chiba’s influence and impact today, and it’s sad to know he will miss the opening of his first feature film since 2018, Bond of Justice: Kizuna, which debuts on October 1st. It reminds me of when Chiba flew to Hong Kong in July 1973, with plans to meet Bruce Lee and work on a film together. Chiba waited for two days alone in China, only to learn that Lee had died in a hospital. I wonder who was waiting on Chiba this month, hoping to work with the legend once he recovered.

Immortality, in some ways, is possible when you have 250-plus films to your name, each a crucial stepping stone in a career that can’t be replicated. Through blood, guts and bravery, Chiba showed me that Asian strength can be as messy and human as anything else. And to pay proper tribute, I’ll be watching The Street Fighter again this weekend, staring at Chiba’s face and smiling at the lunacy of it all.