By Jordan Newmark | 2 January 2019
Let’s say, Bruce Lee was to martial arts what Elvis Presley was to rock n’ roll then the Johnny Cash of throwing fists and feet was, no doubt, Sonny Chiba.
Since 1974, he has been known the world over as Shinichi or Sonny Chiba ever since he seized our collective attention as the man in black, Terry Tsurugi, in the combative classic The Street Fighter. Both man and movie, which spawned sequels and spinoffs, had and continue to have an immeasurable influence on martial arts and cinema to this day.
In honor of the living legend, who is still a busy actor, celebrating his 80th birthday this January, let’s delve into Chiba as a martial artist both on and off screen, while we look back at the fateful The Street Fighter trilogy plus the offshoot that he also appeared in- Sister Street Fighter.
A Legend Is Born
Born Sadaho Maeda of Fukuoka, Japan, his family moved when he was four years old to the city of Kimitsu in Chiba Prefecture, which is where Chiba would draw his stage name from. Chiba was a talented athlete in gymnastics, track and field, baseball, volleyball, and he would go on to enroll in Nippon Sports Science University. An injury sidelined his Olympic dreams, but this lead to Chiba training in martial arts.
Back to the comparison to Lee, where Bruce had Ip Man and Wing Chun, Chiba had Mas Oyama and Kyokushin Karate. While Chiba doesn’t have the gilded stories of competition and honor duels like Lee, the two do share a commonality of real martial arts training with mythic masters.
One can choose to believe or not in Oyama’s superhero exploits of “100-man kumites” and fighting bulls with his bare hands, which Chiba would later recreate and star as his sensei in movies like Champion of Death aka Karate Bullfighter, Karate Bearfighter, and Karate for Life.
What is not up for debate, Oyama created a credible martial art that has schools the world over to this day and has produced incredible champions like Andy Hug and Georges St-Pierre.
This is all to say there is a backbone of integrity inherent in Chiba’s work, like Lee’s, regardless of how performative or, more so, insane the movies got. And Chiba’s movies got real crazy, which is why he is a perfect complement to Lee.
The Street Fighter
This movie was X-rated. Let that sink in. X-rated! Sure, times have changed, but Chiba portrays a true anti-hero who delivers such extreme violence to his adversaries in this flick that when it arrived in America it was stamped with an X-rating. And this was the United States’ introduction to Sonny Chiba, so it was quite a first impression.
While this was the pinnacle of success for his career at that point, Chiba had been famous in Japan as an actor for well over a decade. Discovered in a talent search circa 1960 by the Toei Company, Chiba had appeared and starred in dozens of movies and television covering genres from crime-thrillers to science-fiction. Chiba had fought aliens, played superheroes, and defeated the Yakuza with many of these stories being adaptations of popular manga comics.
Chiba was such a veteran actor and action star in his home country before gaining the US’ attention that he had already started the Japan Action Club, later renamed Japan Action Enterprise, which was an organization to find the next generation of martial arts action stars and to take martial arts action scenes in film and television to the next level. The result of the latter was The Street Fighter.
It’s really a dynamic range of martial arts action blending genres and inspirations. Martial artists are treated as both real people who have jobs and superhumans who have moves like “oxygen coma punch”.
Size and scale of fights vary too, for instance the movie begins and ends with a one-on-one fight, which is first in a jail cell and, later, is finished on top of a tanker ship during a rainstorm.
The Street Fighter is a world of villains. Terry Tsurugi is a mercenary, a hired human-weapon who is in that jail cell to help a horrible convicted murderer escape his death sentence. From there, organized crime syndicates get involved and, basically, every hitman in Japan is after Tsurugi.
At its core, it’s about a martial artist wanting to prove he’s the best and that comes to light in the middle of the movie during a long duel at a dojo with a karate master no doubt based on Mas Oyama. And Chiba’s character loses the fight, learns from it, and makes an ally with that karate master who is the only actual “good” guy in the movie.
And then there are over-the-top sequences ripped from manga comics like Chiba karate chopping a guy’s head so hard that the movie cuts to an X-ray of the man’s skull splitting in real-time or, with a single movement, Chiba tearing the genitals off of a rapist and showing it to him like a trophy before dying.
The Street Fighter has all the grittiness, sex, violence, and funk (amazing theme song) of the times making for a Japanese version of a Blaxploitation movie.
Return of the Street Fighter
Fans of the original didn’t have to wait long as Terry Tsurugi was back in not one, but two sequels the same year and, even, a spin off.
It is a nonstop fight from beginning to end with Chiba tangling with even more flamboyant and frightening villains than the first installment. In short, there cannot be more than five minutes between action scenes in this movie.
Variety is the key to these action sequences with a focus on how unique and destructive different martial arts weapons can be like a spear, bo staff, katana, sais, and tonfas to name a few. And they did not skimp on wild locations either. The best example of both is Tsurugi fighting on a snowy mountain against three guys with each of them having a different weapon.
There is a great scene that kind of sums up this movie in its message and absurdity. Tsurugi is in a spa where people are getting massage and the like. A random comedic character recognizes Tsurugi as being a real tough guy and he tries to impress him. In all of his ranting, the guy describes martial arts as a mix of “mysticism and brute strength”, which is oddly correct.
Then more people recognize Tsurugi and he ends up beating everyone up in the spa, man and woman alike, then locks them all in the steam room and, finally, turns the steam up to a lethal level. Return of the Street Fighter is an excellent sequel that lives up to the original and has a memorable fisticuffs finale.
The Street Fighter's Last Revenge
In all honesty, it’s not great.
While the sequel kind of abandoned story for more action, the trilogy ender does the opposite resulting in a twisty-turny story more akin to a James Bond movie. There’s just a lot of focus on a secret tape recording and who has it, and it doesn’t hold the interest as the great fights did of the other two movies.
With that being said, there are some still fun and wild encounters with larger-than-life villains. The main bad guy has his own martial arts style referred to as the “Cosmic Wave” and Tsurugi loses to him the first time they tangle.
A refreshing bit in each of the three movies is seeing Tsurugi lose, it does happen in each movie, or get hurt as he these are dangerous opponents and he’s as foolhardy as he is a skilled fighter.
Obviously, it’s still worth a watch as Chiba continues to be effortlessly charismatic and he’s highly watchable in anything
Sister Street Fighter
So good. Cannot stress enough how good this movie is.
As mentioned, this is a spin-off of The Street Fighter series and is only mentioned here as Sonny Chiba is in the film, he kicks butt in it, but he is not playing Terry Tsurugi. The name of the movie is just the English title trying to get audiences who liked Chiba to see this. It’s more so a sister movie to The Street Fighter than Sister Street Fighter, if that makes sense.
It is a buffet of violence akin to Return of the Street Fighter with varied weapons, numbers of people, and locations. Paired with that, it has a somewhat more distilled plot of a sister searching for her brother and wanting to get revenge on the people who have taken him.
Etsuko Shihomi is great as the killer protagonist and this movie spawned two Chiba-less sequels. Shihomi and Chiba worked together in many films, including The Street Fighter where Shihomi plays one of Tsurugi’s reoccurring adversaries. Sister Street Fighter is a lot of fun and has a litany of colorful villains that make it a must watch.
To check out the seminal The Street Fighter trilogy and the Sister Street Fighter trilogy, most of these movies can be found online like Youtube as they have fallen into public domain. For a much higher quality viewing experience, Shout!