Sonny Chiba, Martial Arts Icon and ‘Hattori Hanzo’ on ‘Kill Bill,’ Dead at 82

by Evan Reier
Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

A legend of both martial arts and the big screen, Sonny Chiba, has passed. The Kimitsu, Japan-born actor was 82.

Per Variety, the actor and martial artists actor died on August 19 according to his agent. The initial report of his passing, released by Japanese publication Oricon News, said that he died due to complications of COVID-19.

Further, he had been attempting to recover in the hospital since August 8. Tragically, Sonny Chiba lost his battle with the virus at Chiba Prefecture Kimitsu Hospital on Thursday.

For fans of Japanese film and martial arts movies in general, Sonny Chiba is an icon of the genre. His filmography spans nearly 60 years, with his first appearance on television coming in 1960, and his first film appearance a year later in 1961.

From futuristic superhero and sci-fi shows to more classic retellings of samurai wars, Sonny Chiba essentially portrayed every type of action hero or villain. Famously a close employee and collaborator Toei Productions, which is the owner of wildly popular brands Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, Sonny Chiba ended up appearing in over 125 productions of the studio.

However, it was his work in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 that made him a recognizable face in the United States. Portraying retired sword maker and current sushi chef Hattori Hanzo, he plays a pivotal role in the film. Making the final sword for Uma Thurman’s “The Bride,” which she would use for the climactic battles at the end of the first film, his contribution to Quentin Tarantino’s classic was unmistakable.

Early Life of Sonny Chiba

Before taking on the nickname of Sonny Chiba, his original name was Sadaho Maeda. Chiba was born on January 22, 1939 in Fukuoka, Japan. He spent his childhood moving around due to his father’s military service.

While attending school and growing up, Sonny Chiba found a passion for martial arts and film. Falling in love with Westerns as well as embracing his athletic side made for the perfect training regimen.

By 1960, he was discovered by Toei, who quickly thrust him into productions on both television and film.

How Sonny Got His Name

As mentioned, Sonny Chiba was born Sadaho Maeda, but was given a stage name fairly early into his career. It was in his first projects with Toei Productions that he was billed as Shinichi Chiba.

But his work in Western cinema and television that led the name Shinichi to be changed to “Sonny.” According to the LA Times, then-New Line Cinema chairman Robert Shaye gave him the nickname. In fact, he gave the actor the nickname far before ever meeting the actor.

Eventually, Chiba came out west and worked with Shaye and New Line. It was the beginning of his western work, and would eventually lead to the expansion of his stardom.