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Actor And Martial Arts Legend Sonny Chiba Has Died At 82

Sonny Chiba at the New York Premiere of <em>Kill Bill Vol. 1</em>.
Evan Agostini
Getty Images
Sonny Chiba at the New York Premiere of Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba looked like he knew how to crack a skull. In his 1974 international breakout movie, The Street Fighter, Chiba plays a mercenary who relentlessly smashes goons' faces, breaks their bones and punches them so hard they spit up in visceral gushes. A cult figure in the United States, Chiba found wider popularity after appearing in such films as the Kill Bill series and The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Chiba died Thursday at age 82, his management company announced. His friend Ryuji Yamakita, the director and producer of Chiba's final film, confirmed he died in a hospital in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, following complications from COVID-19.

Sonny Chiba was a prolific actor in Japanese film and TV, working closely with the famed production company Toei. His fame broadened with the international release of The Street Fighter, a bloody trudge through the Japanese underground that upon its American release was billed as having the "first X-rated fight scenes in screen history." The movie lived up to its press hype, with Sonny Chiba brute-forcing his way through nameless bad guys. (Be warned that in the clip below, Chiba punches out an opponent's teeth).

Perhaps Chiba's biggest booster in the United States was writer and director Quentin Tarantino, who wrote a reference to him into 1993's True Romance, cribbed the famed Ezekiel 25:17 speech in Pulp Fiction from the opening of a Chiba movie, and finally cast him as the retired swordsmith Hattori Hanzo in the Kill Bill movies.

Outside of his onscreen work, Chiba formed the Japan Action Club, where he trained aspiring martial arts actors and stunt workers. This was inspired by a love of American action movies, he told the crowd through a translator at GalaxyCon Raleigh in 2019. He said that people misunderstood the "action" in the group's name to refer to "action movies." Instead, he said, he meant it to refer to filmmaking more broadly—as in lights, camera, action.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.