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SYFY WIRE obituary

Sonny Chiba, martial arts legend and 'Kill Bill' actor, dies at 82

By Nivea Serrao
Sonny Chiba

Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba, the Japanese actor and martial arts legend best known internationally for starring in Kill Bill Volume1 and Volume 2 as well as The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift has died of COVID-19 complications, SYFY WIRE has confirmed. He was 82. 

According to The Japan Times, the actor contracted COVID-19 at the end of July and was hospitalized on Aug. 8. He was unvaccinated at the time. 

"Sonny Chiba was not just a client, but a dear friend of mine, and we mourn his passing and our prayers are with his children and family," said Keya Morgan, Chiba's manager in a statement to SYFY WIRE. "Sonny Chiba was the last of the true Samurais, and a martial arts legend unsurpassed by any other in Japanese history. In the 1960s and 70s, he was to Japan, what Bruce Lee was to China. His unique talents, charisma and mastery of the martial arts will live on for eternity." 

Chiba's career spans from the 1960s, when he first started acting, all the way through to the 2010s, with almost 200 credits worth of film and television projects to his name, including the 1974 international hit The Street Fighter. Many of his roles saw him showcase his expert martial arts skills, with him going on to choreograph fight scenes later in his career, even directing some of them. 

Born Sadaho Maeda in Fukuoka, Japan on Jan. 22, 1939, Chiba took up martial arts when he began attending Nippon Sport Science University in 1957, studying Kyokushin Karate under master Masutatsu “Mas” Oyama and earning a first-degree black belt in 1965, as noted by his IMDb bio. He would later go on to portray Oyama in a trilogy of films (Champion of Death, Karate Bearfighter, and Karate for Life). In 1984, he received a fourth-degree black belt. He also held black belts in Ninjutsu, Goju-ryu Karate, Shorinji Kempo, Judo, and Kendo. 

Chiba began his early television career by appearing on the Japanese superhero shows Seven Color Mask and Messenger of Allah. In terms of film, Chiba made his debut in the 1961 science fiction movie Invasion of the Neptune Men. But international fans will best recognize him from his roles in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 in which Chiba played Hattori Hanzo, a retired swordsmith and owner of a sushi restaurant who not only trained Uma Thurman's character, The Bride, but also forges her a sword to use in her quest for revenge. He also appeared in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift as Kamata, the Yakuza boss uncle of DK Takashi, the film's main antagonist, played by Brian Tee. 

Chiba also notably surprised Keanu Reeves, who has stated he's a big fan of Chiba's, during an interview when he was in Japan promoting John Wick in 2014. "Character and action, you brought together," Reeves gushed during the brief conversation between the pair. "Very tough … There was always heart to them. You would mix them, you know?"

Some of Chiba's other credits include Battle Royale IIThe Bullet Train, The Storm Riders, and many more. Prior to the pandemic, Chiba had been set to star in a film called Outbreak Z opposite Jesse Ventura (Predator) and Wesley Snipes (Blade). He will appear posthumously in Ryuji Yamakita's film, Bond of Justice: Kizuna, which is expected to be his final performance before his passing.

"It's such tragic news," adds Chiba's manager and friend Timothy Beal in a statement to SYFY WIRE. "He was a great friend and an awesome client. Such a humble, caring and friendly man."

Chiba is survived by his three children, actors Juri Manase, Mackenyu Arata, and Gordon Maeda.