|SHINICHI "SONNY" CHIBA: A Real Mean Bastard!
A Career Profile by August Ragone
"An actor's body should be full of emotions, whether it is happiness or sorrow, pain or joy, enraged or elated. You have to express yourself with your whole body. Japanese actors don't normally do this. What I'm doing as an action star is what every actor should be doing. Action is drama. If we cannot make the audience laugh, smile or cry with us, we are not actors. That may be idealistic -- but it's true."
-- Shinichi Chiba, 1989
Nickname: SONNY CHIBA
Real Name: SADAO MAEDA
Date of Birth: JANUARY 23, 1939
Birthplace: FUKUOKA, KYUSHU
Profession: ACTION FILM LEGEND & ORIGINAL FOUNDER OF "THE JAPAN ACTION CLUB"
Favorite Actors: STEVE MCQUEEN & ALAIN DELON
Most Famous Screen Character: TAKUMA TSURUGI, THE MERCENARY IN "THE STREETFIGHTER" TRILOGY
Martial Arts Training: STUDIED KYOKUSHIN-KEN UNDER MASATATSU "MAS" OYAMA FOR FIVE YEARS. STUDIED SEISHIN-KAI & GOSHIN-BUDO UNDER SHOGO KUNIBA
Levels Obtained: 2ND-DAN GOJURYU - 2ND-DAN BLACKBELT IN JUDO - 4TH-DAN BLACKBELT IN NINJUTSU - 1ST DAN BLACKBELT IN KENDO - 1ST-DAN BLACKBELT IN SHORINJI KEMPO (as previously stated, "A real mean bastard!")
Check out the Sony Chiba movie poster images over at the Movie Shelf!
...and Chiba believes every word of it, but more importantly, he makes you believe it. He is one of the most intense action film stars of all time. Whereas Bruce Lee's persona was that of a sleek and deadly cat, Chiba's is that of a hyperactive (but nonetheless lethal), pitbull. Let's get real here: Chiba's martial art skills are brutish opposed to Lee's, but they are nonetheless precise and powerful -- his skill seems more enraged, more brutal. You may not ever want to get into a fight with Lee, but you would NEVER dare cross Chiba. Even when he plays amiable good guys -- watch out -- because you don't envy the villains a bit once they piss Chiba off. Nobody does it quite as badass as Chiba. Nobody.
The second of five children, and son of a military test pilot Shichinosuke Maeda and his wife Haruko, the young Sadao Maeda and his family were transferred to an air base in Chiba Prefecture (just north of Tokyo) during World War II. He later adopted the name "Shinichi Chiba" as his screen name -- based on his new home, as well as a contraction of his father's first name.
Chiba's devotion to physical performance began in his youth when he became intensely interested in traditional Japanese theater and in gymnastics. He aspired to enter the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as a gymnast, by enrolling in the Physical Education Department of Nihon Taiku University. Everyone predicted a bright future for him as a contender for the Japanese Olympic Gymnastics Team, but he had taken on a part-time construction job, where he injured his hip bone -- forfeiting his Olympic chances. Greatly disappointed, he nonetheless continued with his martial arts training at the university, then World Karate Grand Master and Kyokushinken Karate founder, Masatatsu Oyama. In his senior year, he was given the honor of coaching at the university.
After graduation, Chiba began thinking seriously about his place in the world. Where would he go and what would he do? It was then that he auditioned and won the Toei Studios' 1960 "New Faces Contest," and he began traveling down the road of acting. This was a rather non-conventional path, and one that greatly concerned his family -- especially his very traditionally minded father. The two subsequently had many arguments about the young Chiba's future.
At the age of 21, the newly christened Shinichi Chiba's first assignment that summer was from Toei TV Productions in Oizumi, Tokyo. He was signed to take over senior action star Susumu Wajima's part as "Kotaro," the lead character on the popular superhero drama created by writer Kohan "Tokyo Drifter" Kawauchi: SPECTRAL MASK (Nanairo Kamen). The series combined elements of the masked avenger genre popularized by Kawauchi's "Moonlight Mask" (which had roots in juvenile lone samurai tales), mixed with the Edogawa Rampo-inspired detective yarns that featured clever investigators who were the masters of disguise.
The success of this assignment lead him to be cast as the heroic star of Kawauchi's next vehicle: THE MESSENGER OF ALLAH (Ala-no Shisha), later the same year. Interestingly, this series featured another turbaned hero like Moonlight Mask, but was set in the deserts of the Middle East -- with an all-Japanese cast. The main characters were all named after products sold by the show's sponsor, a Kabaya Confections. Both of these shows were more in line with the American superhero serials of the 1940s than the more hyperactive Japanese superhero teleseries to follow.
Chiba's constant high-profile on television launched him into motion pictures the next year. Toei Tokyo's short-lived action film division -- New Toei (created to compete with Nikkatsu's contemporary action films) -- began priming Chiba as an action star. After supporting roles in a pair of METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPARTMENT STORY (Keishicho Monogatari) films and the classic THE GAMBLER (Osho), starring the venerable Rentaro Mikuni -- his debut starring vehicle was entitled THE DRIFTING DETECTIVE (Furaibo Tantei). The two B-Movies were the first films from seminal director Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royal). Later that same year, Chiba returned to a superhero role with Koji Ota's big-screen juvenile adventure THE SUPERSONIC SPACESHIP (Uchu Kaisoku-sen aka "Invasion of the Neptune Men"). His salary back then was around •6,000 per month and since his rent was •4,000, he didn't have much to live on. These were "hard knocks" time for Chiba; for besides being poor, his father, who opposed his acting career, finally disowned him.
With the support of senior actors at the Toei Studio, such as yakuza eiga superstar Ken Takakura (who bought him a suit and would give Chiba rides to the studio), Chiba forged on. He became the sensation of the long-running hit NET network series JNR INSPECTOR #36 (JNR stands for "Japan National Railway"), which ran from 1962 to 1967. During the hectic production of the show, which was shot all over the Japanese Islands, Toei found time to squeeze him into another teleseries: 5th LEVEL DARKNESS (Kurayami Go-Dan), with Chiba playing a blind judo master -- but, this did not slow Toei Studios down from casting him in as many films as possible.
Some of these films included Fukasaku's HEPCAT IN THE FUNKY HAT (Fuanki Hatto-no Kidanji) and HEPCAT IN THE FUNKY HAT: THE •200,000 ARM (Fuanki Hatto-no Kidanji Nisenman'en-no Ude). His card for the 1960's was filled with a score of pictures, several entries of the comic SHINTO BOSS (Shinto-no Sacho) series, as well as heavy handfuls of Crime, Judo, War, Youth and Dramatic films: FOR LOVE THE SUN AND THE GANG (Koi-to Taiyo-to Gangu), THE JUDO GENERATION (Judo Ichidai), GANG VS. G-MEN (Gangu tai G-Men), THE YAKUZA'S SONG (Yakuza-no Uta), THE VIOLENT UNDERWORLD (Boryokugai), ESCAPE: THE 2/26 INCIDENT (Ni-niroku Jiken Dashutsu), THE TERRIFYING WITCH (Kyofu-no Majo) and HIGHER THAN THE STARS IN THE SKY (Ano Sora-no Hate-ni Hoshi-wa Mattaku).
While there was a concerted effort on the part of Toei to exploit Chiba as a "star" to the fullest, on the other end of the spectrum, they also placed him ironically, in exploitation and horror films, most of which were international co- productions. These included director Hajime Sato's BATTLE BENEATH THE SEA (Kaitei Dai-Senso, aka "Terror Beneath the Sea") and the theatrical version of the "pulp-cum-animated" series, GOLDEN BAT (Ogon Batto) -- both in 1966. This strange juxtaposition of Art and Pulp would seem to be a recurring pattern throughout Chiba's long film career.
Riding high on his roaring star momentum, it was in this period that Shinichi Chiba earned the nickname "Sonny." The young actor was involved in an auto ad campaign for a new model by Toyota, called the "Sunny-S." The ads were very successful, and the name stuck with him -- especially with Toei's overseas advertising department, who started to bill him as "Sonny Chiba."
Finally, JNR INSPECTOR #36 ended its run in July of 1967, and even though Chiba had already appeared in seven films that year (adding to a total of 58 in six years), he was not idle from television long. The next year he found himself jet-propelled into "action star" fame, among the cast of one of the most popular Toei action teleseries of all time: KEY HUNTER (Kii Hanta). This dream cast included Tetsuro Tamba (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE), Hayato Tani, Hiroshi Miyauchi, Eiko Ogawa, and Chiba's future ex-wife, Yoko Nogiwa.
"I thought up all kinds of action scenes, and got involved in the writing of the scripts as well..."
-- Chiba on KEY HUNTER.
KEY HUNTER, Toei's fuel-injected variation on "Mission: Impossible," boosted Chiba's career as an action star. He had been featured in scores of films but none paid him the kind of salary he was longing for until this series came along. "I was earning less than my own wife, and that really bothered me. I desperately wanted my own series, and KEY HUNTER turned out to be a gem," Chiba reflected. He put a great deal of time and effort into each episode. "I thought up all kinds of action scenes, and got involved in the writing of the scripts as well; at first they seemed rather dry to me, so I knew that I had to add my own 'spice' to them." Chiba's "spice"? -- heavy heapings of outrageous and delirious action sequences, which helped to keep KEY HUNTER on the top of the ratings for five years, resulting in over 250 hour-long episodes.
The success of KEY HUNTER was enough to spawn a string of spin-offs without Chiba, (who was now the hottest action star in Japan, ready for the big screen again): "Operation: Eyeful" (Aifuru Daisakusen), "Operation: Birdie"(Badeii Daisakusen), "G-Men '75" and "G-Men '82, " keeping Tetsuro Tamba in like-styled shows for another nine years. During the five-year production of KEY HUNTER, Chiba continued to appear in no less than 18 feature films, most of them with an emphasis on action -- including the WOLF YAKUZA (Okami Yakuza), YAKUZA COP (Yakuza Deka) and BODYGUARD KIBA (Bodeigarudo Kiba aka "Karate Kiba") film series. Mas Oyama made guest appearances in the pair of BODYGUARD KIBA films, which were based on a popular adult manga by Ikki Kawajiri. Oyama was cut from the US version of the first entry, which was edited for release as THE BODYGUARD.
One of the latter titles was brought to the States as THE ASSASSIN (Yakuza Deka Marifuana Mitsubai Soshiki), this second entry in the four-film YAKUZA COP series, is widely dismissed in the West as a "bad karate movie." It was, of course, produced before the "kung fu boom" of the mid-1970s, but is not really a martial arts film per se. In reality, it is a brilliant seriocomic action showcase for Chiba's sense of humor. In the vein of the "Matt Helm" pictures -- silly and irreverent -- THE ASSASSIN features Chiba tripping on marijuana, sporting outrageous pimp threads, showing off his bare ass (!), and a head shaking cameo by the late professional wrestler Giant Baba! Who could want more?
The popularity of KEY HUNTER helped Chiba to push the importance of action with the use of thoroughly trained stuntmen. Leading him to found what would become the Japan Action Club in 1969. Based in the Ebisu Ward of Tokyo, JAC was created to provide able-bodied stuntmen/martial artists for any studio who was able to hire them. At its height, the organization employed over 100 active members at a time, all of whom were put through rigorous daily practice. JAC and Sonny Chiba Enterprises were able to launch a number of stuntmen and women into superstardom as actors, singers and action-heroes throughout the 1970s and '80s. JAC Alumni include: Etsuko "Sue" Shiomi (Sister Streetfighter) and Hiroyuki "Henry" or "Duke" Sanada (Roaring Fire), who is still one of Japan's top actors -- appear in the international horror hit "The Ring," and has even performed with London's Royal Shakespeare Company.
"...I discovered that the majority of Japanese actors weren't physically fit for motion pictures."
-- Chiba on the creation of Japan Action Club.
Concerning JAC, Chiba states: "The more I did action scenes, the more I discovered that the majority of Japanese actors weren't physically fit for action pictures. It also became apparent to me, that if things continued this way, I was going to end up looking like a clown -- because the other actors wouldn't be able to keep up with me. Actually, I created JAC so that Shinichi Chiba could be successful!"
The popularity of Chiba and KEY HUNTER enabled the enterprising actor to create a string of television series for himself throughout the '70s, with even more attention to action than KEY HUNTER. These shows include THE BODYGUARDS (Za Bodeigarudo), THE GORILLA-7 (Za Gorira Sebun), BLAZING DRAGNET (Moero Sosamo), EMERGENCY LINE (Dai-Hijosen) and the drama NANAIRO TONGARASHI. It was also during this period that JAC was influential to the "Superhero Boom" on Japanese television -- revolutionizing the action scenes for shows of this type. Chiba would from time to time, make a special appearance in some of these programs (or launch his proteges in them), such as 1973's ROBOT DETECTIVE (Robotto Keiji) and 1982's SPACE SHERIFF GAVAN (Uchu Keiji Gyaban).
...the two met to discuss a joint film project.
-- regarding a possible film starring Sonny Chiba and Bruce Lee.
During the last year of production on KEY HUNTER, Hong Kong Superstar Bruce Lee came to the attention of Chiba through marital arts star Yasuaki Kurata. Chiba was well known in Hong Kong due to KEY HUNTER, and through their mutual friend, the two met to discuss a joint film project. Unfortunately, the film was put off due to Chiba's tough TV schedule. Eventually, Chiba agreed to appear in the Hong Kong/Japanese production: TOKYO-SEOUL-BANGKOK: TRUE STORY OF THE NARCOTICS ZONE (Tokio-Souru-Bankoku Jitsuroku Mayaku Chitai) in 1973. He had to postpone his arrival in Hong Kong by ten days and soon after his plane landed, he was shocked to hear the news that Bruce Lee had suddenly passed away.
Chiba became inspired by Lee's passion for intensity. Toei Studios was inspired by the enormous profits garnered by Toho-Towa's release of "Enter The Dragon." Toei decided it was time for the revival of the martial art film, and Chiba was just the man to herald this new wave of Japanese action films. Shigehiro Ozawa's THE STREETFIGHTER (Gekitotsu! Satsujin-Ken), RETURN OF THE STREETFIGHTER (Satsujin-Ken 2), THE STREETFIGHTER'S LAST REVENGE (Gyakushu! Satsujin-Ken); Teruo Ishii's THE EXECUTIONER (Chokugeki! Jigoku-Ken); THE KILLING MACHINE (Shorinji Kempo), KARATE INFERNO (Chokugeki! Jigoku-Ken Dai-Gyakuten), and KARATE WARRIORS (Kozure Satsujin-Ken) ) -- are among the martial art films produced in Japan during the blur that was the '70s. Chiba also was a memorable presence in non-starring roles in SISTER STREETFIGHTER (Onna Hissatsu-Ken), DRAGON PRINCESS (Hissatsu Onna Kenshi), SUDDEN ATTACK! AIKIDO (Gekitotsu! Aikido), THE 13 STEPS (Wakai Kizoku-tachi: Jusan Kaidan-no Maki). Chiba also squeezed in some films for other Asian studios, such as THE JAPAN CONNECTION (allegedly with Kareem Abdul Jabar!) and the abysmal THE SOUL OF CHIBA (aka "Oriental Arsenal").
Chiba became inspired by Lee's passion for intensity. Toei Studios was inspired by the enormous profits garnered by Toho-Towa's release of "Enter the Dragon." They decided it was time for the revival of the martial art film, and Chiba was just the man to herald this new wave of Japanese action vehicles. Shigehiro Ozawa's VIOLENT CLASH! KILLING FIST (Gekitotsu! Satsujin-Ken aka "The Streetfighter"), VIOLENT CLASH! KILLING FIST 2 (Satsujin-Ken 2 aka "Return Of The Streetfighter"), COUNTERATTACK! KILLING FIST (Gyakushu! Satsujin-Ken aka "The Streetfighter's Last Revenge"); Teruo Ishii's DIRECT HIT! HELL FIST (Chokugeki! Jigoku-Ken aka "The Executioner"); SHORINJI KEMPO (Shorinji Kenpo aka "The Killing Machine"), DIRECT HIT! HELL FIST: THE BIG UPSET (Chokugeki! Jigoku-Ken Dai-Gyakuten aka "The Karate Inferno"), and LONE KILLING FIST AND CUB (Kozure Satsujin-Ken aka "Karate Warriors") -- are among the martial art films produced in Japan during the blur that was the 1970s.
Chiba also was a memorable presence in non-starring roles in DEADLY FEMALE FIST (Onna Hissatsu-Ken aka "Sister Streetfighter"), DEADLY FEMALE FIGHTER (Hissatsu Onna Kenshi aka "Dragon Princess"), the rarely seen VIOLENT CLASH! AIKIDO (Gekitotsu! Aikido) and THE 13 STEPS OF MAKI: THE YOUNG ARISTOCRATS (Wakai Kizoku-tachi: Jusan Kaidan-no Maki aka "The 13 Steps") -- making these films all the more fun because of his involvement.
Chiba also squeezed in some films for other Asian studios, such as THE JAPAN CONNECTION (allegedly with Kareem Abdul Jabar!) and the interesting VIOLENT DEATH! WAY OF THE EVIL FIST (Gekisatsu! Jado-ken aka "The Soul Of Chiba") with Tadashi Yamashita, better known as "Bronson Lee." The film was produced by Chiba and Yamashita themselves, under the title "Oriental Brave," because they were tired of bickering with directors who did not understand martial arts. At the time, Yamashita was quoted as saying, "We filmed in Thailand and Hong Kong, and we used big stars to represent each place. We used Don Wong ["Slaughter In San Francisco"] from Taiwan, Yang Sze ["Enter The Dragon"] from Hong Kong, Chiba and myself. Also, we used Lo Ching, who was a technical advisor on all of Jimmy Wang Yu's movies. Etsuko Shiomi is in it, too, and she's the number one actress in Thailand right now."
Chiba and Yamashita wanted to produce a sequel, to be shot on location in Mexico -- but due to the low box-office returns of the first film, it's doubtful this proposed follow-up went beyond the planning stages. Too bad, it would have been awesome to see Chiba and Yamashita busting their way out of a Mexican jail ala BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID -- in a flurry of fists and feet, instead of bullets. Of at least hooking himself up to his outlandish electrical muscle-contraction device once again!
In the wake of his snowballing rouster of action films, good or bad, Chiba skyrocketed to international infamy with the US release of VIOLENT CLASH! KILLING FIST by New Line Cinema in 1975. American distributors were eager to capitalize on both the Kung Fu Craze and the boxoffice success of Warner Brothers' "Enter The Dragon," and found a highly marketable title with this violent Chiba actioner. Dubbed THE STREETFIGHTER for North American release, it was the first film ever to receive an "X" rating from Motion Picture Association of America for violence, rather than sex or language -- even garnering the attention of Hugh Hefner's "Playboy" magazine, which reviewed the film.
The MPAA's rating, due to the violent aspects of THE STREETFIGHTER, was easily exploited and quickly making the film a cult hit -- even though New Line cut the film disjointedly to garner an "R" in a bid for wider distribution. The sensation that followed the release of THE STREETFIGHTER caused a bit of negative and inaccurate tabloid publicity -- can you believe it?
New Line's pressbook for the film helped to exasperate the misinformation, describing Chiba as "Six-Foot-Six of Half-Breed Fury and a Man Who Keeps His Word" (in reality, Chiba is 5'9"). It was also falsely reported that Chiba was the result of a mixed-marriage between an American GI and a Japanese dancer, growing up on the mean streets of postwar Tokyo, where he was the leader of a dangerous youth gang called the "Kamikaze Lords"! Other such reports noted that Chiba went into seclusion as a Shinto monk, living somewhere in the foothills of Mount Fuji (!), all because of the overwhelming pubic attention following the release of THE STREETFIGHTER. Yeah, he was hiding out with Lee, Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison. Who the hell makes up this garbage?
He was hardly in seclusion, rather he was in the middle of a hectic decade, crammed with films and television series. One such project was a trilogy of films (very) loosely based on the life of his mentor Masatatsu Oyama (who passed away in 1994). These films were adapted from the manga (comicbook) "The Fanatical Karate Generation" (Karate Baka-Ichidai) by Jiro Tsunoda. Chiba played Oyama, while the real Grand Master served as technical advisor. Members of his main Kyoshinken dojo were featured in the film as fighting extras. The resulting movies were KYOKUSHIN-KEN: THE FIGHTING KARATE (Kenka Karate Kyokushinken aka "The Champion Of Death"), KYOKUSHIN BRUTE FIST: THE FIGHTING (Kenka Karate Kyokushin Burai-Ken aka "Karate Bear Fighter") and THE FANATICAL KARATE GENERATION (Karate Baka-Ichidai aka "Karate For Life").
According to a 1970s martial arts magazine, "Chiba and Oyama spent many hours together making sure that both the fighting sequences and the actual biographical information would be correct. When Chiba fights, Oyama is once again fighting. Oyama's life is authentically depicted to every last detail, with the bulk to the story line based on Oyama's 'search for the ultimate truth of karate' in his earlier years. The search led Oyama along a path of adventure and challenge -- the movies include many of the dramatic duels in which Oyama participated during his journeys." Whether completely truthful or not (did Oyama really fight Masked Wrestlers in an Okinawan Deathmatch?), viewers will have to decide for themselves. But, it does make for colorful prose -- and even more colorful movies.
As the martial arts craze died down, Chiba then starred in several films which contained less karate, but were not lacking in action or outrageousness. These were THE DOBERMAN DETECTIVE (Doberuman Deka), a delirious film version of the "comicbook-cum-teleseries" (the tube version starred veteran Toho actor Toshio Kurosawa, a Chiba lookalike) and THE FUGITIVE (Dassouyugi). Chiba continued the comicbook films with GOLGO 13: KOWLOON ASSIGNMENT (Gorugo 13 Karuun-no Kubi), playing the famous assassin created by Takao Saito, and WOLFGUY: THE ENRAGED LYCANTHROPE (Urufugai Moero Okami-Otoko). "Wolfguy"? You heard it right. Imagine this: a karate-fighting werewolf secret agent -- it's true! Eat your heart out, Paul Nascy...
During this phase in his career, Chiba hardly slowed down -- not only starring in his own vehicles, but also making guest appearances in established film series. He received top-billing in the first EXPLOSIVE! SPEED TRIBES (Bakuhatsu! Bosozoku) film -- one of the more popular entries centering on Japan's "Bosozoku" motorcycle gangs -- directed by the eccentric and delirious Teruo Ishii.
1978 was a big year for Chiba...
--regarding THE YAGYU CONSPIRACY.
On top of all his action roles, during his career Chiba made a myriad of appearances in equally violent or extremely prestigious yakuza potboilers for Toei, starting at the very beginning of his career in the 1960s through the 1980s, with such entries as BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR OR HUMANITY: DEATH-DUEL IN HIROSHIMA (Jingi-naki Tatakai Hiroshima Shitto-hen), two films in the ABASHIRI PRISON series ("Hokkaido-hen" and "Nankoku-no Taiketsu"), THE OKINAWA 10-YEAR WAR (Okinawa-no Ju-nen Senso), NORTHERN PROXY WAR (Hokuriku Dairi-Senso), THE CODE OF JAPAN (Nippon-no Jingi), THE OKINAWAN YAKUZA WAR (Okinawa Yakuza Senso), YOKOHAMA UNDERWORLD: THE MACHINE-GUN DRAGON (Yokohama Ankoku-Gai Mashingan-no Ryu) and many, many more.
Chiba's roles in these Yakuza films spanned the entire spectrum of parts one could play: lone bakuto, violent tekiya, shitheel chinpira, loose cannon, psycho killer, honorable boss, lonely hitman, loyal gang member and tragic anti-hero. In some of these films, Chiba often shared screentime with Yakuza Eiga superstars Bunta Sugawara, Ken Takakura, Hiroaki Matsukata or Koji Tsuruta -- or he just popped in for a brief guest appearance, between breaks on his own projects.
After the success of American and Japanese all-star disaster films, such as THE TOWERING INFERNO and SUBMERSION OF JAPAN, Chiba appeared as the conductor of Hikari 109 in Toei's own big-budget all-star disaster picture THE BULLET TRAIN EXPLODES (Shinkansen Daibakuhatsu aka "The Bullet Train") in 1975. The Junya Sato film -- top-billed by the aforementioned Takakura (playing a complex criminal mastermind) -- features a plot oddly similar to Jan DeBont's much later-produced film, SPEED. It was a huge box-office and critical smash, not only in Japan, but throughout Europe as well. Following THE BULLET TRAIN EXPLODES, Chiba would appear in several other all-star spectaculars and disaster films.
Another big-budget blockbuster was Kinji Fukasaku's MESSAGE FROM SPACE (Uchukara-no Messeji), in which Chiba's supporting role as "Prince Hans"-- the deposed rightful heir to the throne of the Gavanas Empire -- was sort of a galactic ronin. In reality, MESSAGE FROM SPACE was interstellar version of the Japanese long-novel "Satomi Hakkenden" and Chiba, as always, put his all into this role, becoming injured as a result of his wholeheartedness. While performing a simple stunt -- sliding towards a gate crashing down behind Empress Dark (played by Eisei Amamoto) -- he overextended his aim, and the prop gate dropped on his leg, fracturing his ankle. Despite the painful injury, he soon bounced back and completed the film on schedule. He had to... 1978 was going to be a big year for Chiba.
Next, he and Fukasaku worked together on another box-office smashing story of feudal intrigue and ninjutsu: PLOT OF THE YAGYU CLAN (Yagyu Ichizoku-no Inbo, aka "The Yagyu Conspiracy"); which was spun-off into an equally popular teleseries of the same name (aka "Shogun's Samurai"). For 1979, more ninja, swordsmen and other oddities were in store for Chiba, including: the fantasy film crossover TIMESLIP (Sengoku Jietai, aka "G.I. Samurai"), the American-Japanese production THE BUSHIDO BLADE (a cheap rip-off of the spaghetti western "Red Sun" -- both of which costarred Toshiro Mifune, now with Chiba in the original Mifune role) and another American/Japanese effort, the startling and moving RESURRECTION DAY (Fukkatsu-no Hi aka "Virus").
Another hit motion picture for Chiba, who stayed behind-the-scenes to handle the stunt choreography, was HANZO HATTORI: THE SHADOW ARMY (Hattori Hanzo Kage-no Gundan). The successful film was spun-off into a hit teleseries -- this time starring Chiba, which ran from 1979-1985. HANZO HATTORI was followed by more cathode ninja with a follow-up to PLOT OF THE YAGYU CLAN -- THE VIOLENT TRAVELS OF YAGYU (Yagyu Abare-tabi). Then suddenly, more ninja began leaping from Japanese television screens with THE SHADOW ARMY II & III, JUBEI YAGYU'S VIOLENT TRAVELS (Yagyu Jubei Abare-tabi) and THE SHADOW ARMY IV -- featuring the best performers JAC had to offer: Sanada, Shiomi, Kenji Oba, Junichi Haruta, Hikaru Kurosaki and Ryusuke Sakitsu. These projects were the sounding board for Chiba and company. There was a great public response to all of this activity, and JAC's popularity began skyrocketing -- making Sanada in particular, a superstar in his own right.
As he diversified into the production of stage plays, such as Futaro Yamada's "Makai Tensho" and musicals like "The Drunken Duke." There was also a flurry of live-stunt shows, concerts, and public appearances. All the while, Chiba continued to appear in films, but now in supporting roles, and placing the young JAC stars in front of him. It was during this period that the members of JAC became popular idols with the Japanese public with a huge merchandise-chewing fanbase. This following helped Sonny Chiba Enterprises to swell into a powerful company, which not only offered a huge line of goods, but spawned mountains of magazine articles and photo books. This was the time of their lives -- Chiba and the Japan Action Club were at the top of their game.
At this time, Chiba took on the roll of orchestrator. His presence in JAC's films was increasingly relegated to behind-the-scenes control. NINJA SCROLLS: SANDAYU MOMOCHI (Ninja Bugeicho Momochi Sandayu, aka "Shogun's Ninja"), ROARING IRON-FIST (Hoero Tekken, aka "Roaring Fire"), THE KAMIKAZE ADVENTURERS (Bokensha Kamikaze) -- all starring Sanada, with Chiba in costarring or supporting roles. This was followed by other JAC/Sonny Chiba Enterprises productions, where Chiba appeared in brief cameos: KABAMARU THE NINJA (Iga-no Kabamaru) and LEAVE IT TO KOTARO (Kotaro-o Makari-toru aka "Kotaro To The Rescue") -- featuring Hikaru Kurosaki in the lead (both productions based on satirical manga). It seemed as though there wasn't a single action television show or film that JAC and Chiba didn't have their hands in.
Some of the more important films of the 1980s that showcased Chiba's magnetic presence included: Fukasaku's supernatural classic OTHERWORLDLY EVIL (Makai Tensho aka "Samurai Reincarnation") -- adapted from the hit JAC stage drama (based on the novel by Futaro Yamada), costarring Kenji Sawada, Hiroyuki Sanada and Ken Ogata ("Mishima"). In this fantasy film, Chiba once again plays Jubei Yagyu, out to stop an army of resurrected swordsmen from overthrowing Japan with black magic. This was followed by Hideo Gosha's pessimistic HUNTER IN THE DARK (Yami-no Karyudo), the thrilling escapist actioner SURE-DEATH 4: WE WILL AVENGE YOU (Hissatsu 4 Urami Harashimasu aka "Sure Death: The Revenge") and a cameo in Fukasaku's seriocomic tribute to the stuntman of the early days of the Japanese film industry, THE MARCH OF KAMATA (Kamata Koshin-kyoku aka "The Fall Guy").
One of the biggest films Chiba had the pleasure of being associated with, at that point -- as well as one of the best and most elaborate period fantasy films ever shot in Japan -- is the 1983 Haruki Kadokawa production of SAGA OF THE EIGHT DOGS OF SATOMI (Satomi Hakkenden aka "Legend Of The Eight Samurai"). This 136-minute epic adaptation of the ancient Japanese novel, has been filmed several times, but not as beautifully as seen here. Despite two sappy songs, written and performed by Jon O'Banion ("Flashdance"), it is a spectacular Fukasaku actioner and the fantasy film that MESSAGE FROM SPACE should have been. With it's all-star cast, expansive and lavish sets and brilliant special effects, SAGA OF THE EIGHT DOGS OF SATOMI is must-see viewing.
...everything he had built up was utterly destroyed...
-- regarding the effect of REMAINS on Chiba's career.
In the late '80s, Chiba began to take it easy, his efforts focusing on sedate television fare such as A MIDNIGHT WELCOME (Mayonaka-no Yokoso), a miniseries concerning a convenience store manager (!?), TOMORROW'S SNOW (Yuki-no Asahi) -- a middle-aged man falls in love with a young woman, and THE TRAVELING GIRL (Tabi Shojo) -- another mini-series, this time about circus performers. Then, his career and everything he had built up was utterly destroyed by the production of a single film: REMAINS: THE BEAUTIFUL BRAVES (Remeinsu Utsukushi Yujo-tachi aka "Yellow Fangs").
In 1988, Chiba decided to bankroll a project that would mark the 20th Anniversary of his Japan Action Club. That project was the film REMAINS: THE BEAUTIFUL BRAVES, starring Hiroyuki Sanada and Bunta Sugawara. Chiba consulted with Kinji Fukasaku (who served as "advising director"), and was resolved to direct the film himself. Investing over 10 million dollars of his own money, Chiba set out to make the ultimate action film. It was based on the true story of a killer bear on the loose in 1920s rural Japan, and the brave souls who fought to kill it.
Although REMAINS: THE BEAUTIFUL BRAVES received good notices from tough critics, it bombed at the box office -- grossing a meager 4 million dollars. The loss became Chiba's personal debt and he was forced to dissolve many of his holdings, including his mansion in Kyoto, his restaurant chain, and his office building in Tokyo. He was also pushed into closing his Ken-Karate martial arts school, and Japan Action Club was forced into a merger with a yakuza-affiliated reality company (since then, the Japan Action Club has become a self-owned company). All of his assets were sold. Chiba suddenly saw the world he worked so diligently to create, evaporating before his very eyes.
...Chiba refuses to go down for the count.
-- regarding the tenacity of Shinichi Chiba.
Chiba shocked the Japanese media in 1994, when he divorced his actress wife, Yoko Nogiwa. Their 27-year marriage was always thought to be rock-steady. Unlike other actors and entertainers, Chiba was never known as a philanderer, or to date flavor-of-the-month actresses or models to gain in his own popularity -- nor did he ever cheat on his wife. Although, rumors persist that the divorce is one of convenience, constructed to help Chiba keep what few assets he has left, today Chiba has a new, younger wife (half his age), who bore him a son in 1996... But still, regardless of all the negative press and circumstances of the last decade, Chiba still refuses to go down for the count.
Fortunately for his fans world-wide, Sonny Chiba began cropping up in action films in the 1990s, on both the big and small screens -- on television, he made notable appearances in period/chambara dramas for television: SHINGEN TAKEDA (Takeda Shingen), THE 17 NINJA (Jushichi'nin-no Ninja), LEGEND OF THE HOLY DRAGON (Seiryu Densetsu) and TERAYOKA YUMESHINAN -- which featured his martial artist daughter, Juri Manase.
The films include the routine actioner THE MINE FIELD (Jiraiken), which he produced, Fukasaku's amazing underworld tale WE WILL SHINE SOMEDAY (Ittsuka Giragira-suru Hi aka "The Triple Cross"), the HK co-production FIGHTING FIST (Hakken, aka "The Killing Fist"), in which Chiba both starred and directed. He also was featured prominently in, and created the action sequences for, the incredible chambara films THE FALL OF AKO CASTLE (Akojo Danzetsu, aka "47 Swords of Vengeance: The Fall of Ako Castle") and VIOLENT CLASH: THE MADNESS OF SHOGUN IEMITSU (Gekitotsu: Iemitsu Shogun-no Ranshin, aka "Shogun's Shadow").
All told, Chiba starred in about 125 films for Toei Studios, and won several acting awards in Japan for his dramatic film roles. He also wrote several books on martial arts and training, as well as appearing as a pitch-man for many Japanese products from cars to instant curry. Overall, 21 of his films were released in North America between 1975 and 1992. This of course, brought him to the attention of American filmmakers from time to time -- for better or worse.
This downside came in the wake of the failure of REMAINS, it seemed that he began appearing in a handful of low-brow American films just for the work. Or was it something else? His talent was wasted in straight-to-cable fodder such as ACES: IRON EAGLE III (with Louis Gossett Jr.), IMMORTAL COMBAT (aka "Resort To Kill" with Rowdy Roddy Piper) and THE SILENCER: MAGNUM 357 (Za Sairensa Magunamu 357 aka "Codename: Silencer"). This co-production with Toei Video, starred Brigette Neilsen and Robert Davi, and was released in America as BODY COUNT. Chiba received fourth-billing under Stephen Bauer -- talk about a slap in the face -- it's amazing the level of ineptitude American action quickies can reach, and how little they know about the actors they cast. It's even more astounding that the no-talents that helm such productions are even granted money to produce them at all. Such embarrassments are an utter waste of talents as vast as Chiba's. But, at least Chiba was putting himself out there, and people were starting to take notice.
On the upside, there has been increasing attention in his home country, in print and on screen. Theatrical screenings of his Old School films have been popular and he has been the subject of several recent interviews for his recent productions. One of Japan's more brilliant aspects is the satellite cable service, the Toei Channel (24/7 of nothing but Toei movies and television shows), which has been screened several Chiba retrospectives. Another service, Family Theater, has been re-running his popular action teleseries -- if "family values" in Japan means watching Chiba kick ass, then those are my kind of values! All of this retroactive exposure has heralded a rebirth in cult popularity. In the 1990s, he was sometimes considered a hasbeen in his home country -- but, nobody's laughing anymore, as he rides a new wave of notoriety and enlightened respect, with nominations for his recent Hong Kong film appearances.
Yes, Chiba has made the successful leap to HK films. No longer stuck in a handful of lame direct-to-video projects helmed by hacks... His epic comeback in the 1998 Andrew Lau spectacle: THE STORM RIDERS (Feng-yun), blew audiences around the world away, making "Sonny Chiba" a household word again. Based on the popular HK "mangua" (read: "comic book") "Wind and Cloud" by Ma Wing Sing, THE STORM RIDERS mixes state-of-the art CGI composites, comic-book flourishes, spectacular video game style camera work, classic Chinese legendary heroic archetypes and leaves audiences with the one of best-looking and more epic HK film in years.
Most importantly, THE STORM RIDERS stars Chiba as the world-hungering "Hung Ba, the Conqueror," a villain whose performance has not only earned him instant fame in HK (and slowly the West, by those who have embraced the film as turning-point in HK action cinema), but a nomination for "Best Actor" by the Hong Kong Film Awards in April of 1999. Part of the reason for this nomination, not to mention his magnetic screen presence, is his "Throne of Blood"-esque denouncement at the film's conclusion... melodramatic? Perhaps, but what were you expecting... "Shakespeare In Love"?
In the last year of the 20th Century, Chiba managed to line up a number of HK projects, running a very tight schedule as to not tread water. He appeared as the father of David Wong-kit in Bosco Lam's THE LEGEND OF THE FLYING SWORDSMAN (Siu Lee Fei Diy Ji Fei Diy Ngoi Chuen), then completed the Japanese-produced films CHINCHIROMAI and THE MELANCHOLY HITMAN (Kanashimi Hittoman). Without missing a beat, he stormed over to appear in Andrew Lau's HK gangster saga BORN TO BE KING (Sing Che Wai Wong), in which he played Ichiro Kusakari, the leader of the Yamada Gang. He could be also be spotted as a strict father in a new Japanese television drama, as well as a guest at film festivals in Japan and Los Angeles. With more projects on the slate, Chiba is bouncing back... Big Time.
According to a 2000 issue of Asian Cult Cinema magazine, Chiba caught up with veteran director Teruo Ishii, at the Tokyo International Film Festival (Chiba was promoting "Storm Riders," and Ishii was promoting his mind-boggling "Hell"), and asked about the possibility of making another sequel to THE DIRECT HIT! HELL FIST. Ishii was quoted afterwards saying, "I wonder if he can still jump?" -- you betcha, Ishii, jump back, Jack! Or your skull'll be cracked!
Unfortunately, such a film may never come to pass, since Ishii is outspoken in his distaste for karate and karate films ("They're not fun"). He even purposely sabotaged the original sequel to DIRECT HIT! HELL FIST, the perplexing yet hilarious DIRECT HIT! HELL FIST: THE BIG UPSET, hoping that the studio wouldn't ask him to do another. It worked. But, much to Ishi's chagrin, it's a sleeper cult hit in Japan these days. No matter if Ishii and Chiba team up again, there are rumors of more enlightened projects on the horizon, which just might showcase our hero in a respectful and proper light.
But films are not the only thing... from the ashes of the Japan Action Club, Chiba has created "Japan Dream Movie," a new acting school under his direction, which opened in May of 1999. JDM will primarily focus on acting and English conversation skills for the enrollees. Chiba's goal in opening JDM is to train actors who break into the American and international markets, armed with serious skills in acting and English proficiency... one can only hope that Chiba will begin a stunt-branch soon thereafter, to replace our beloved Japan Action Club.
Thanks in part to the favorable articles in recent Japanese periodicals and books, Alfrex [http://www.alfrex.co.jp], a company specializing in G.I. Joe-style action figures of famous Japanese samurai film stars (such as 12" versions of Yojimbo, Zatoichi, and all Seven Samurai), has begun a new line called "The Legend of Sonny Chiba" -- the first release was our hero as Hattori Hanzo from THE SHADOW ARMY, while the second was his television portrayal of Yagyu Jubei. Scores of fans worldwide, myself included, are still awaiting a doll of his infamous Takuma Tsurugi from THE STREETFIGHTER series...
While immortalization in plastic has been achieved in Japan, on this side of the Pacific, Chiba is, by-and-large, thought to be a memory of the 1970s. On western shores in the late 1990s, New Line Home Video took an interest in releasing a number of Chiba's action films from the 1970s -- which drew long-overdue attention to Chiba by western critics and fans, alike. These releases were followed by dubious prints, with dubious packaging, from the questionable Arena/Xenon Home Video.
With the advent of DVD, the North American market has been flooded with Chiba titles in wildly uneven print quality, from a myriad of companies such as Diamond Entertainment, Front Row Video, Brentwood Home Video, and many more. Most of them have been taken from 20-year old out-of-print VHS releases and even the New Line Home Video letterboxed laserdiscs! And more are on the way. Let the buyer beware...
In the fallout of such wide exposure on video shelves and the internet, plans are now afoot to feature Chiba star in several American and Canadian productions -- which promise to better employ his talents to their fullest. Let's hope so, because anything less will be a serious dissapointment.
Part of his American renaissance must also be credited to writer/director Quentin Tarantino, for the exposure he gave Chiba in his screenplay for TRUE ROMANCE (1994), which featured Christian Slater going to a Sonny Chiba film festival. The next was Tarantino's endorsement of -- and enthusiasm for -- the New Line Video's re-release of STREETFIGHTER series. Since the time that Taratino lauded him, fans have wondered why the cult director hadn't tapped the Chiba's talents for one of his own productions.
Now, it is finally coming true with the production of KILL BILL!, starring Uma Turman ("Pulp Fiction") as an assassin bent on revenge. But what about Chiba? According to Tarantino, Chiba is playing swordmaster Hanzo Hattori (presumably, a descendant of the original) and this part will be significant major character, not just a token cameo. By far, this could be the most visible Chiba has been in American film in quite some time.
The premise of the noirish KILL BILL! is as follows: A professional assassin known as The Bride (Thurman) is gunned down, with child, by her boss, Bill (David Carradine) and other members of their assassination group, at her wedding (including all of the guests). However, she survives the bullet lodged in her brain, but is in a coma for five years. Once again among the living, she soon sets out to enact her revenge, traveling the world to hunt down the five men responsible.
In March of 2002, Chiba began training the principals in Los Angeles in not only martial arts, but Japanese language and customs for their roles -- performing triple-duty on the film. Production commenced in June of 2002 in Beijing. Other locations will include Tokyo, Hong Kong, Mexico and Los Angeles. If we are to believe the hype and the promise of giving Chiba a meaty and action-packed role are fulfilled, then I'll be the first waiting in line to see KILL BILL! on opening day -- the film is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2003 -- to hell with Hollywood's limp-wristed action films!
Some bad news is that before the production of KILL BILL! Chiba was offered a chance to audition for the lead villain in the upcoming Bond film "Die Another Day" as the North Korean villain "General Zao" -- the mind boggles when you think of the implications of a battle between 007 and Takuma Tsurugi! The role of General Zao was eventually cast with "The Fast and The Furious" star Rick Yune in the role. This was a really missed opportunity, albeit a small role. There's always the next Bond adventure.
But, better news for Chiba fans is that the Big American Offers are finally rolling in -- Chiba is now being considered for a modern-day Samurai film, to be directed by "one of Hollywood's best-known directors" (they are not telling until the contracts are signed), and a syndicated action teleseries. Weekly doses of Chiba? Can we be so lucky? Let's keep our fingers crossed that these projects come to fruition, and that KILL BILL! will open up more avenues for Our Man Chiba -- bringing forth new productions for his fans world-wide.
Though all of the mishaps in past, Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba's fortunes have taken a turn for the better -- he looks forward towards the new century with a new wife, two children, a new school, a revived interest in his action films and more importantly, in himself -- proven by the great success of THE STORM RIDERS and what has come in its wake. He can leave his checkered past behind, and spring forward, fists flying, into a new era of appreciation.
Despite what you may or may not think of him as an action star, we must give Sonny Chiba the props he deserves and thank him for being Chiba The Man... no matter how many times the world has beat him down, he has proven to us over and again, like his screen character Takuma Tsurugi, you can't keep a "real mean bastard" down!
© Copyright August Ragone, all rights reserved.
This was updated and expanded from a biography appearing in Asian Cult Cinema #15 (1996), itself adapted from a shorter biography that appeared in Markalite #1 (1990). Additions and Corrections are encouraged and very much welcome.
Special and most grateful thanks to Mr. Shinichi Chiba and his manager Yutaka Ishiyama, for their overwhelming kindness support and cooperation. I would also like to say hey to: John Grace (all-around great guy), Damon Foster (Oriental Cinema magazine), Richard Jeffery, Dan Richards (Samurai/Ninja/Yakuza), Patrick Macias (Tokyoscope) and Ken Royea (The Movie Shelf) for their support and/or assistance with additional information. Also, I'd like to thank my Japanese movie memorabilia dealers who keep selling me more posters and... Hey, why am I thanking them for taking my money?!
P.S. If you've read some of this information in other works (specifically the book "Asian Standard Time" or cheapo Grey Market DVDs of Chiba's films), it was swiped wholesale from this article, or an earlier version of it. At least they had the taste by ripping off my research and that there's some true information circulating around -- some of my earlier mistakes have made their plagerism all the more obvious -- next time don't forget a bibliographical credit or at very least a nod to The Movie Shelf, you hammerheaded hacks. You know who you are...
This article, written by Henshin! Online co-creator August Ragone, also appears at The Movie Shelf who have their own Sonny Chiba resource pages. Please check it out and tell Ken we sent you.