Sunday, April 08, 2007

Q & A With Sonny Chiba by Aaron Yamasato (1 Apr 2007)

Hey everybody! SEEN ANY GOOD MOVIES?

Sorry that it’s been a while since I last wrote, but I’ve been busy living and filming in HONG KONG! It was for a new show called, “Inside Hong Kong.” We met with and interviewed stars such as DANIEL WU (Protégé/ Jackie Chan’s New Police Story), SIMON YAM (Tomb Raider 2/John Woo’s Bullet in the Head), KELLIE CHEN (Infernal Affairs/Johnny To’s Breaking News), SHEK KIN (Enter the Dragon/Tsui Hark’s A Better Tomorrow III), MICHAEL WONG (John Woo’s Once a Thief/Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords), KEA WONG (Jubilee from X-Men: The Last Stand), HO-CHEUNG PANG (Fulltime Killer/Men Suddenly in Black), ALAN ZEMAN (Producer-8 Films to Die For-After Dark Horrorfest), BEY LOGAN (Producer/Asian Film Expert)…and many, many more wonderful people! Living and working in Hong Kong was such an incredible experience. The people, the food, the shopping, the culture, the high technology, the sights, the sounds…I LOVE HONG KONG! If you haven’t visited before, I would highly recommend Hong Kong as the place to check out and visit. Hong Kong is an exciting and amazing city!

I’ll be sure to keep you updated on when “Inside Hong Kong” premieres on national television. The show will be hosted by Roger Garcia (Producer-The Big Hit) and Mimi Chan (Disney’s Mulan). It’s going to be a GREAT show!

But in the meantime, here’s my interview with a legendary martial arts movie actor…SONNY CHIBA!

Sonny Chiba (left) and me (right)

I was absolutely thrilled to have the chance to meet one of my childhood heroes in person for the very first time!

To be honest, I was incredibly nervous, because this was an actor who I watched, and was a big fan of, since I was a kid.

He was the coolest of the cool as Hattori Hanzo, the leader of the Iga Ninjas in the Japanese action show KAGE NO GUNDAN (aka The Shadow Warriors).

Sonny Chiba as Hattori Hanzo in Miramax’s Kill Bill Volume 1

But he’s probably most recognizable to people in the U.S. as the master sword maker in Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL Volume 1. Director Tarantino was also a huge fan of THE SHADOW WARRIORS and cast Sonny Chiba (or more respectfully Chiba-Sensei), as the master whom Uma Thurman visits for guidance. His character gives Uma Thurman a powerful new sword and says, “If god were to touch it, even god would be cut!” So cool.

Mr. Tarantino has also mentioned that the character Hattori Hanzo was deliberately named after Chiba-sensei’s hit Ninja action show, and that it would be really cool to think that…’Maybe, just maybe’…the character in KILL BILL was a descendent of Hattori Hanzo from the classic SHADOW WARRIORS Japanese television show!

Order Sonny Chiba in The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift

Like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee…Sonny Chiba is a LEGEND in Asia. Almost everyone there knows of him. He has starred in HUNDREDS of movies! Can you imagine yourself starring in OVER 125 FILMS?

Sonny Chiba as Uncle Kamata in Universal Pictures’ THE FAST AND

In the U.S., Chiba-Sensei was most recently seen in Universal Pictures’ THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT, he played the powerful Yakuza crime lord whom all the characters were fearful of…the smooth and dangerous Uncle Kamata.

And now onto the interview with this legendary actor!

Q & A with Sonny Chiba

AARON YAMASATO: You had a great career in action films. How have they changed over the years?

SONNY CHIBA: In the last 4 years, there has been a very big change in Japanese action films, and especially with my action team. They make many different types of movies and television programs in Japan, but I think that the level of Japanese action films have risen quite significant in these past four years.

In Japan, they’ve had many different discoveries in the genre of action films. There has especially been a very big influence from American films, as well as influences from Hong Kong action films.


AARON: What makes a great action film for you?

CHIBA-SENSEI: I think that action cannot be separated from drama. Without drama, there is no such thing as an action film. Without drama, an action film will be simply a fake…a “Nisei Mono.”

I also believe that the dramatic story, or the natural story, is very important. That if you don’t have a natural story with a natural conclusion in your action film…there will be no applause, and there will be no impression on the audience. I think that action is drama.

It can’t be merely spectacle.

AARON: Can you talk a little bit about the Japan Action Club and how it got started?

CHIBA-SENSEI: When I first started off in action films, I had this image of what an American action film should be and what the image of what a Japanese action film should be. But other directors and actors in Japan were not able to follow me with this image right away. They didn’t have the confidence to do it and I wasn’t able to impress upon them my vision of what an action films should be.

When I first started out, I would do most of my own stunts. The actors I worked with would have stunt doubles. So for the most part of the time, I was working with their stunt doubles. When actors did action scenes with me, it would be with their stuntman, so the camera could only shoot me from behind of the actor’s stuntman head.

At this time, these actors weren’t with my action team yet, and they needed to raise their level of stunt work. So we created this action team (Japan Action Club).

The actors joined the Action Club and they were able to learn stunt work from me.

They were able to slowly raise their level of stunt work to where they didn’t need stuntmen. They started doing all their own stunts, so the camera was now able to move and shoot freely from all angles.

We’ve been working on that for forty years, so the level has gone up considerably, and gradually came up to what it is today.


AARON: The STREET FIGHER (1974) series made you an international star. Could you tell us how you approached that role?

CHIBA-SENSEI: I was very young when I did that role, so it’s hard to even compare myself now to the young man that I was in the STREET FIGHTER movies. I’ve aged and I’m still doing action films, but to me, more than just the action of the STREET FIGHTER films, the drama of the films that I’m doing now, is more impressionable.


AARON: What are your thoughts on the character (Terry Suguri)?

CHIBA-SENSEI: During that time in Japan (1970’s), there was no action movie character like the main character in STREET FIGHTER. There was no precedent, so everyone greeted the character, and myself, with great applause and pride in Japan during that time. The character I played also seemed to respond to people in America and else where. But for me, I don’t think that the STREET FIGHTER character is actually one of my best, or even a great character, because he wasn’t necessarily a popular character in Japanese culture.

Sonny Chiba as Lord Conqueror in The Storm Riders (Hong Kong/1998)

AARON: I was wondering if you could tell us some of the differences between working in Japan and working on Hong Kong productions?

CHIBA-SENSEI: Hong Kong and Japan have completely different styles of action, which I think is fine, but there are certain aspects of Hong Kong action that I simply can’t comprehend. So when I work on Hong Kong movies I sometimes get very confused.

I wondered ‘Is this really okay to do here…isn’t this kind of weird?’

The main difference between the two genres of film between Hong Kong and Japan is that they have two very different histories. A lot of these action films are based on the histories of each culture. It was difficult for me in Hong Kong because I wasn’t as familiar with their history, and also with the Hong Kong action genre films. So after a take, I would think to myself ‘Is this OK? Should I be doing this?’ But then I would observe Jackie Chan, who is a good friend of mine. Jackie has brought Hong Kong action films to a new level, and which in turn, has become the basis of American action films.

Sonny Chiba as Yakuza Boss Kamata in Universal Pictures’ THE FAST AND

AARON: Do you prefer playing heroes or villains?

CHIBA-SENSEI: As an actor, it’s hard to say which I like better, the good guy or the bad guy? It depends on the character, and is whichever the deeper and more complicated character. But in my career, it seems that the bad guy is usually the more complicated and deeper character, and I prefer those types of characters to play. However, in old Japan, there was a big difference between good guy and bad guy. In Japanese films, as well in American films, that difference has now become more ambiguous. It’s harder to tell the good from the bad. This guy might be a bad guy, but he has good points. I still like to play the bad guy, but my son says to me ‘Dad…Papa. You can’t be the bad guy. What are you doing? You need to be the hero!’ (laughing)

AARON: Do you prefer period costume films or contemporary stories?

CHIBA-SENSEI: Since I live in the US now, I look at Japanese actors and can see them trying to change over to star in American films. They want to be more Americanized. But Japan has a very long history. In that history, there is the concept of Bushido, which is the way of the warrior. It is very strong and is very strong in my mind. I would like to create a film that goes back to this great tradition of Japanese history, and bring that to an American audience.

Starring Sonny Chiba
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku

AARON: What have been some of your favorite roles?

CHIBA-SENSEI: I’ve been so many characters and had so many interesting roles, so it’s quite hard to choose. But, I think I feel that my best characters were in director Kinji Fukasaku’s work. It’s because he was such a great director. Also, his story lines were filled with great roles and great characters. But I think that portraying samurai, portraying characters in the traditional Japanese model, have been my best. From now on in my career, those are the roles that I would like to continue to portray. Also, if you compare contemporary Japanese movies with contemporary American films, the Japanese films will never win. I feel that Japanese films need to go back their roots. That is why I wish to bring the samurai film back.

Sonny Chiba as Yaguy Jubei in SHOGUN’S SAMURAI

AARON: Of all the films you have done for director Kinji Fukasaku, do you have any particular favorite?

CHIBA-SENSEI: All of Fukasaku’s films are excellent!

Director Fukasaku has so many great works, so it’s really hard to choose a favorite. But my favorite role would have to be YAGYU ICHIZOKU NO INBO (1978).

That was an excellent and unforgettable film, where I played Yagyu Jyubei.

Yagyu Jubei really existed and is a very famous figure in Japan.

He was a very famous character in Japanese films, but because it was one of director Fukasaku’s films, he crafted the character to become much greater. Yes, I believe that was my best work or my favorite character on film.

It was my favorite role, but it was also a very difficult role to portray, because Yagyu Jubei is only able to see out of his right eye. My right eye is also my bad eye, so after working for many days using only my bad eye, my bad eye actually got to the point of blindness! To remedy this, I had to have some type of eye surgery.

AARON: Sugoi! (Wow!)

CHIBA-SENSEI: (Smiles and laughs)

Kill Bill Vol. 1 DVD

AARON: Could you tell us how you became involved in Tarantino’s KILL BILL (2003)?

CHIBA-SENSEI: Director Quentin Tarantino came to my birthday party. That was the first time he approached me about KILL BILL. At that time, the script wasn’t finished and Quentin approached me and asked if I would be in it. I agreed and that’s how it happened.

Director Quentin Tarantino (with Sword) working with actor
Sonny Chiba in Kill Bill Vol. 1 Source:

AARON: What was it like to work with Tarantino?

CHIBA-SENSEI: He was a very interesting person, as well as a versatile director. I’ve never seen a director use the types of cuts and angles and images that director Tarantino used. He would also be very kind to his actors. Quentin would always say, “Action! Cut! Excellent.” After a take, he would say, “Excellent! One more please.” Then again, “Action! Cut! Excellent! One more time please.” (laughs)

He really cared for his actors and he really treated them well, and in that respect I think of him to be very similar to director Kinji Fukusaku. He was very kind to his actors and made you feel really good. He would start clapping and say, “Greaaat. Goooood! Wonderful! Excellent! (ponders) One more please.” (laughs)

He was great. He would make you feel good. That’s why it was so wonderful working with him.

Sonny Chiba at Kill Bill Vol. 1 movie premiere

AARON: What are your thoughts on your Hollywood career? Was it a challenge to move from filmmaking in Asia to working in the U.S?

CHIBA-SENSEI: Hollywood still feels like a far off reality to me. There are still many things about Hollywood that I don’t fully comprehend yet. Not so much that I don’t comprehend it, but that I haven’t become fully a part of it. I feel like I need to learn a lot more of the Judeo Christian sort of culture, especially Judaism and those types of ideas that come into the American movies. It is difficult for non-Americans, especially Asians, to become stars in American movies.
On the other hand, recently there has been a great reception towards movies from China, Japan and Korea. The way Americans have fully embraced those types of movies, I think it’s going to be easier, and Hollywood will be able to produce even better movies working together these types of Asian countries.

AARON: You are an International action star. What is your secret to your success?

CHIBA-SENSEI: I do not believe I am an action star, but an actor in action movies. And actors not only use their face, but they also use their whole body. They use all their emotions. They use all their sadness, happiness and all of these things. And if the director tells me to do something in a certain way, I will use my upbringing as an actor, and the skills that I’ve learned in my body to produce these roles. So I don’t believe that I’m an action star. As an actor, I would strongly deny that title. Mainly because I feel like it’s too encompassing to label myself as just an “action” star.

AARON: Last Question.


AARON: What projects can we look forward to seeing you in the future?

CHIBA-SENSEI: There are so many! (laughs with delight) I have many dreams and I’ve written many scripts and there are many things that I would like to do. But in particular, I have this project that I’m thinking of called, “BLUE EYED SAMURAI.” I’ve talked with Quentin about it, as well as Samuel L. Jackson. It’s around the time of the Samurai, and the Japanese warrior leaving Japan and coming to America, or India as well. What would happen to this warrior who holds this Bushido or true Japanese spirit? What would happen if a Samurai came to a different country, like India or America? Especially America, since there is a history of the Ronin coming to America. I would like to do a movie based on this. I’m currently talking to director Tarantino about this idea. I’ll also discuss it more during my golf date with Samuel L. Jackson.

That’s the project I’m most excited about now.

AARON: Thank you very much! Thank you so very much! (Smiling and shaking hands)

CHIBA-SENSEI: You are very welcome! Thank you!

Sonny Chiba signing my DVD Box Set! Sugoi! (Wow!)

Chiba-Sensei was a true gentleman...and it was such an incredible honor to meet this legendary actor.

By the way, you can now catch Sonny Chiba as master ninja Hattori Hanzo in Hawaii!

His classic show KAGE NO GUNDAN II a.k.a. THE SHADOW WARRIORS II is now playing on Nippon Golden Television (NGN), Hawaii’s Oceanic/Time/Warner Cable’s Digital channel 677.

If you subscribe to NGN, the cool thing is that you ALSO get NGN3!

NGN3 is 24 hours of English SUBTITLED, classic and modern Japanese movies.

They show lots of old-school, full length Toei Chambara (Samurai/Ninja Swordplay) films.

For $17.95 a month…I think that’s quite a cool deal!

Please visit for more details!

Shadow Warriors: The Complete First Season DVD Box Set

SHADOW WARRIORS is also coming soon to DVD!
You can order it at…

Kill Bill Vol. 1 Japanese UNCUT & UNRATED VERSION DVD

AND…This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re like me and are a hard core fan of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1…pick up the JAPANESE VERSION DVD!

Remember the BLACK & WHITE House of Blue Leaves sword fight scene?

Well, because of censorship in the US, the scene had to be shown without color.

But Japan, it was shown…in COLOR!

See the original scene in all its red spraying glory!

PLUS…it also has much more added scenes of action and gore! These scenes had to be removed for the U.S. release. Even in Lucy Lui’s O-Ren Ishii Anime flashback, there are scenes in the Japanese version that could not be shown in the U.S.

I would go into more detail of what these added scenes were, but since this is a family column…I think it might be best if you see it for yourself, because if you’re a fan, you definitively won’t be disappointed.

For more information and links on Sonny Chiba, please visit some of these cool websites!

Viva Chiba: The Unofficial Sonny Chiba Site

Kung Fu Cinema

Henshin Online

Garden of a Thousand Leaves

Japan Action Enterprise Co, LTD

And until next time...ENJOY LIFE AND ENJOY A MOVIE!

PS. Please share all your thoughts and comments below!

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