- This article first appeared in the Winter 2021-22 issue of Sight and Sound.
I’ve hosted the Bafta film awards a few times, with varying degrees of success. It’s an odd evening, a huge organisational challenge made far harder by the frayed nerves of everyone involved and the hierarchical politics of celebrity. But oddly enough, the highlight for me was always the In Memoriam section. Not because it was a barrel of laughs seeing who had left us in the last 12 months, obviously, but because away from the subjective nonsense of the awards themselves, here was a moment of genuine, uncomplicated gratitude. A moment to appreciate the stars, writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and others who had enriched our lives so much with their efforts. This was no crass competition, in which one person was judged to be ‘better’ or to have contributed more than the rest. This was a level playing field of respect, an often emotional ‘thank you and farewell’.
Even here there were complications, though – who should make the list and get their photograph on screen in that valuable but brief chunk of airtime, and who gets left off? More often than not it’s those who featured in the less respected, cult fringe of cinema who are overlooked. One year I argued, eloquently I hope, for the inclusion of Tura Satana, of Faster, Pussycat fame. They put her in at the last minute and I felt disproportionately happy. Next year I hope they find space among the growing ranks to include the great Japanese actor Maeda Sadaho, aka Sonny Chiba.
He will probably already be on their radar for his brief appearance in Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) as master sword-maker Hattori Hanzō. But it was in his infamous The Street Fighter trilogy (all 1974) that he first won the hearts of martial-arts movie fans; in particular, in one moment in the first film when he delivers a killer punch shown on screen in X-ray vision.
By today’s standard the action looks rather silly, with eye-gouging and more over-the-top gore than most people could tolerate. But that one X-ray moment, suggested by Chiba himself, gives it a peculiar and memorable staying power and also allowed New Line to turn it into a reasonable-sized global hit. I saw it on a double-bill with Black Emmanuelle, White Emmanuelle (1976), I think. A formative day for any teenager.
Discovered in a talent search by the studio Toei Company, Chiba appeared in some fairly standard superhero and science-fiction television shows. But what made him an important figure in the industry was his creation in 1970 of the Japan Action Club, a training school to teach and elevate the martial arts used in Japanese productions. I interviewed Chiba and he lamented the lack of commitment previously shown by his countrymen. He explained that was why Japanese martial arts favoured swordplay over hand-to-hand combat: easier to fake on screen. His international standing would certainly have had a boost if a planned project with Bruce Lee had seen fruition. But when Chiba flew to Hong Kong to meet Lee, he arrived to the news that the star had died the day before.
His career in Japan was rock solid. Chiba had the requisite brooding charisma and craggy features to make his mark in various yakuza thrillers, the brilliantly titled Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (1973) being my personal favourite. And he was fabulous as master assassin Duke Togo in Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon (1977). I’d also happily rewatch Karate Bearfighter (1975), in which he plays a brutal fighter whose skills are too much for your average dojo brawler, so he seeks work as a bodyguard, eventually using his karate against, of course, a bear.
In later years he worked often with the prolific director Miike Takashi, but his collaborations with another, Fukasaku Kinji, are perhaps his most memorable and allow us to appreciate Chiba as a committed actor with the ability to sketch in characters as much with his physicality – their walk, the way they stand and sit and, of course, fight – as with their dialogue. When we chatted he offered Belmondo as one of his favourite screen actors, and in many ways I think they are not so different: languid, laconic and cool, but tough with it.
Chiba was still working up until his death. The huge body of work he created and elevated with his presence serves as a fitting memorial. But I’d just like to see his face on the screen during next year’s Baftas and I can rest easy.