Sonny Chiba was a massively influential Japanese actor, who starred in more than 125 films for the production company Toei Studios over his sixty-year career. Sonny passed away in August 2021, but left behind a lasting legacy in the cinema world. He was well-versed in martial arts, including karate, Kyokushin, and judo, portraying a range of characters; from samurai to yakuza.
Sonny was one of the first actors to acquire acting success through his martial arts ability, and has starred in several movies which made their way out of Japan and achieved international acclaim. He is perhaps best known for his portrayal of a modern Hattori Hanzo in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, he was also a film director and won awards for fight choreography.
10 The Street Fighter (1974)
Chiba’s first breakthrough success came with the release of Gekitosu! Satsujin ken ,Clash! Killer fist, retitled to The Street Fighter for international audiences, in 1974. The Street Fighter inspired two sequels, Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge,
In the movie, Chiba’s Takuma Tsurugi (renamed Terry Sugury in the English dub) is hired to save a murderer from execution. Later, Tsurugi is recruited by Yakuza to kidnap Sarai, the daughter of an oil tycoon, but when he refuses they set out to kill him as he attempts to protect Sarai.
9 Champion Of Death (1975)
Champion Of Deathalso known as Karate Bullfighterwas the first in a trilogy of films based on the manga Karate Baka Ichidai, Sonny Chiba stars as his former master Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin karate, as he attempts to prove that his style of karate is better than the modern ‘dance’ karate.
The situation gets messy, however, when Oyama kills a gangster, and must resultantly fight for his life. Like The Street Fighter, Champion of Death was followed by two more films; Karate Bearfighter (1975), and Karate for Life (1977).
8 Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon (1977)
Moving slightly away from the lone martial arts master movies and more towards action, Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon follows Chiba’s Duke Togo (aka. Golgo 13) as a hitman tasked with murdering the boss of a Hong Kong narcotics empire.
golgo is a seedy and dark movie, taking the audience through the corrupt underbelly of Hong Kong. Chiba’s assassin must evade a determined police officer, who is resolute on stopping Golgo and simultaneously bringing down the drug trade.
7 Hunter In The Dark (1979)
Hunter in the Dark ,Yami no Karyudo) is a thrilling jidaigeki film based on Shōtarō Ikenami’s novel of the same title. Jidaigeki is a genre in Japanese cinema referring to period dramas, including samurai stories. In the movie, Chiba’s role differs from his previous work, as he takes on the role of the yakuza boss Gomyo’s (Tatsuya Nakadai) nemesis.
The movie follows Gomyo and his bodyguard Yataro, as the two fend off enemy yakuza during an inter-clan conflict, and Yataro rises through the yakuza ranks. The movie follows various plot threads, but is full of intense fight scenes.
6 The Storm Riders (1998)
The Storm Riders is very different from much of Sonny Chiba’s other work, and is a Hong Kong-made fantasy adventure movie adapted from the wuxia comic series Fung Wan. Chiba plays the martial arts master Lord Conqueror, who recruits two students in order to prepare for a battle which, should he be victorious, will grant him dominion over the world.
After learning that his students could overthrow him, should they unite, he plots to split them apart. However, his plan goes awry, and his students must defeat Lord Conqueror and his enemy, Sword Saint, to save the world.
5 Legend Of The Eight Samurai (1983)
Legend of the Eight Samurai is another fantasy adventure set in feudal Japan, and stars Sonny Chiba as a novice who must not only unite the eight samurai, but also battle a witch and a deadly centipede in order to save a princess. The story is a classic fairytale adventure, similar to the likes of Willow or The Princess Bride in Western cinema.
Like any good adventure, the story is wrought with difficult challenges and betrayals, such as Shinbei (Hiroyuki Sanada) vowing to turn the princess into her pursuers in order to collect a reward. Chiba is fantastic as the swordsman protecting Princess Shizu, and has excellent chemistry with his on-screen companions.
4 Shogun’s Shadow (1989)
Shogun’s Shadow ,Gekitotsu) is a thrilling movie from start to finish. Set in feudal Japan, the movie follows Takechiyo, the eldest son of Iemitsu, Tokugawa Shogun III. The Shogun plots to have his eldest son killed, and sends an army under the command of Iba Shoemon (Sonny Chiba) to kill him in the night. The attack fails, and so the army pursues Takechiyo and his seven samurai companions.
Shogun’s Shadow is full of awesome fight scenes and stunts, including actors dropping from trees and rolling to their feet joining in the battle. It is a feast for the eyes, and a must-watch for fans of Japanese feudal movies.
3 Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Deadly Fight In Hiroshima (1973)
The second movie installment in the Battles Without Honor and Humanity pentalogy is one of the most beloved in the franchise. Deadly Fight in Hiroshima is set in 1950, and follows demobilized kamikaze pilot Shoji Yamanaka after he is released from prison, and finds a home as a Muraoka family hitman. He falls in love with the boss’s niece, and attempts to fit into the yakuza lifestyle, leaving piles of bodies in his wake.
Chiba is one of the members of the yakuza gang, playing the arrogant and crude Katsutoshi Otomo, and by far steals every scene he is in despite being a secondary character.
2 Executioner (1974)
Executioner ,Chokugeki! Jigoku-ken) is a bizarre, violent, and hilarious ride through the corrupt underbelly of Japan. Chiba stars as the titular ‘Executioner’, a mercenary hired by a discredited police commissioner to put an end to a drug-smuggling enterprise. The tone of the movie constantly shifts, from humor to drama to sheer bloody violence, but it is an absolute joy to watch.
Chiba is excellent as a highly trained martial arts master, demonstrating his fighting skills and choreography to the max. The story is simple and easy to follow, making it a great viewing for audiences craving senseless punching and a satisfying ending.
1 Hattori Hanzo In Kill Bill (Vol.1 And 2)
Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Chiba’s performance in Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. In both volumes, he appears as Hattori Hanzo (not the samurai), a sushi chef and master craftsman. Hanzo gifts the Bride her weapon, and imparts crucial advice to her on her journey for revenge.
What is worth a mention, too, is that Chiba also acted as fight choreographer for the movies, despite being 64 years of age at the time of production. He is mesmerizing as Hattori Hanzo, and like all of his performances, leaves a lasting impression on audiences.