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A cult favorite among martial arts aficionados, Sonny Chiba was a formidable presence in numerous action films during the 1970s, including "The Street Fighter" (1974), which earned an X rating and grindhouse immortality for its extreme violence. Born Sadaho Maeda on January 23, 1939 in Fukuoka, Japan, Sonny Chiba was the second of five children by a military test pilot who moved the family to Chiba Prefecture during World War II. As a young man, Chiba excelled at a wide variety of sports, including gymnastics, and was expected to become a member of Japan's Olympic team, but an injury forced him to abandon that goal. Chiba shifted his focus to martial arts, which he studied under the legendary karate master Masatasu Oyama, whom he would later play on screen during the 1970s. In the late 1950s, Chiba decided to audition for a talent competition held by Toei Studios. The 19-year-old won the contest and, after adopting the stage name "Shinichi Chiba," was cast as the titular hero in the superhero series "7-Color Mask" (NET, 1959-1960). Chiba was soon headlining numerous film and television projects for Toei, most of which hinged on his stoic presence and impressive athleticism, before landing his breakout role in "Key Hunter" (TBS, 1968-1973), a popular crime/spy series which allowed the actor to choreograph action sequences. Its success minted Chiba as one of Japan's top stars, and led to a dizzying array of feature films, as well as his own performing school, the Japan Action Club, which provided trained stuntmen to screen projects. The international success of Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon" (1973) prompted Toei to launch their own slate of martial arts features with Chiba as their lead. In films like "The Street Fighter" (1974), "The Executioner" (1974) and "Champion of Death" (1975), Chiba was a brutish, often malevolent antihero, which stood in marked contrast to Lee's graceful screen presence and philosophical approach to martial arts. Audiences on both sides of the Pacific flocked to Chiba's films, drawn to images of grisly violence like the X-ray cutaway of a man's skull crushed by Chiba's fist in "The Street Fighter," which minted him as one of the decade's biggest action heroes. As the martial arts craze wore down, he moved into other genres, most notably the surreal science fiction epic "Message from Space" (1978). Chiba suffered a personal setback in 1989 when his dream project, a thriller called "Yellow Fangs" (1990), failed at the box office, forcing him to close the Japan Action School and other holdings. The 1990s saw Chiba in low-budget American pictures like "Iron Eagle III" (1992) before mounting an impressive comeback as the villain in Andrew Lau's "The Storm Riders" (1998). A slew of character roles preceded his return to Western audiences as the sword master Hanzo Hattori in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill Volume 1" (2003). Chiba maintained a steady schedule of appearances in Japanese and American titles (including "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" (2006)) while enjoying newfound fame with younger audiences who discovered his classic '70s efforts on home video.
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