Sonny Chiba, martial arts master and Kill Bill star, passes away aged 82

Sonny Chiba, martial arts star of ‘Kill Bill,’ dies of Covid-19 complications

Sonny Chiba, the Japanese martial arts movie star who found late-career renown in Hollywood after outspoken admiration from Quentin Tarantino, has died aged 82 from a Covid-related illness.

His fighting style earned him famous admirers

Chiba, born Sadaho Maeda, got his start in martial arts by training with Mas Oyama, considered a master of karate. And master it, Chiba did — he earned several black belts during his time under Oyama’s wing. He wouldn’t show off his martial arts skills onscreen until 1973, in the film “Karate Kiba.”Comparisons to famed Hong Kong American martial artist Bruce Lee were inevitable. But Chiba’s distinct fighting style was unlike anything Lee attempted. Chiba went ballistic on his enemies and appeared to use more force to land his blows, a method that de-emphasized the choreographed nature of his cinematic spars. And his characters almost always killed his opponents.

“For me, the most enjoyable role to play is the bad guy,” he said in a 2007 interview with UK TV personality Jonathan Ross. He gushed that one particularly brutal scene that cut to an X-ray of a skull after Chiba’s character smashed it was his idea, a workaround to show the damage of a blow without attempting the blow itself, he said.

In the 80s, Chiba continued his prolific output, many in conjunction with director Kinji Fukasaku, including Virus, Samurai Reincarnation and Legend of the Eight Samurai. Chiba also started working as a stunt director and arranger, and starred in Japanese TV series such as the period drama Tokugawa Buraichō.

Chiba’s elevated profile in Hollywood after True Romance led to his casting in Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 in 2003 as a sushi chef and master swordsmith, and subsequently as a yakuza boss in 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Chiba joked that he could learn a thing or two from Reeves, even though Chiba arguably created the blueprint artists like Reeves tried to follow for decades. Chiba, as Takuma Tsurugi, ripped throats out with his bare hands before Reeves, as John Wick, could creatively kill adversaries with a well-placed pencil. He never made it look easy — his characters’ faces betrayed the pain he felt as often as he dealt out pain to his enemies — but the ambivalent tone he struck in his performances inspired much of the action fare viewers today love.


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