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Remembering Japanese Martial Arts Star Sonny Chiba, Who Died Of COVID At 82


Sonny Chiba was a prolific actor known for his Japanese martial arts movies. His movements were brutal, his facial expressions fearsome as he punched and kicked his way through more than a hundred films. Chiba died this week in a hospital in Japan due to complications from COVID-19. He was 82. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: You know how in the movie "Pulp Fiction," Samuel L. Jackson has that big speech that goes...


SAMUEL L JACKSON: (As Jules Winnfield) And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious...

LIMBONG: Well, writer and director Quentin Tarantino cribbed it from a 1973 Sonny Chiba movie known in the U.S. as "The Bodyguard."


SONNY CHIBA: (As Chiba) And they shall know that I am Chiba the bodyguard when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.

LIMBONG: There, Chiba plays a vigilante, who shares his name, pummeling Japan's drug overlords.


CHIBA: (As Takuma Tsurugi, vocalizing).

LIMBONG: Chiba's follow-up movie was 1974's "The Street Fighter," his big international debut and a violent and bloody one at that. Scenes like the one where he punches a guy so hard on the head that the movie cuts to an X-ray shot of a skull cracking and then back to the guy spurting blood earned "The Street Fighter" an X rating in the U.S.

Sonny Chiba was born in 1939. He studied martial arts and started working onscreen for a Japanese kid's TV show. He went on to have a prolific career in action movies and TV shows in Japan, and he got / recognition in the U.S. when Tarantino continued to pay tribute by casting him as swordsmith Hattori Hanzo in the "Kill Bill" movies.


CHIBA: (As Hattori Hanzo) You must have big rats if you need Hattori Hanzo steel.

LIMBONG: For many fans of the genre, Sonny Chiba sits comfortably at the top of a mountain of broken bones. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIROLA'S "PERPETUAL LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.