Sonny Chiba was one of the first actors to achieve stardom through his skills in martial arts, initially in Japan and later before an international audience. Born Sadao Maeda in Fukuoka, Japan, he was the second of five children in the family of a military test pilot. As a boy he manifested an interest in both theater and gymnastics, and he was serious enough about the latter to earn a place on the Japanese Olympic team in his late teens, until he was sidelined by a back injury. While he was a university student, he began studying martial arts with the renowned World Karate Grand Master Masatatsu "Mas" Oyama, leading to his becoming a first degree judo black belt. Sometime around 1960 -- the dates are uncertain, because it is possible that he had television appearances to his credit as early as 1959 -- he was discovered in a talent search by the Toei film studio, and he began his screen career soon after, under the name Shinichi Chiba. It was under that name that he gave perhaps his most dubious screen performance, in the role of the mysterious hero Space Chief (as he is called by his youthful admirers in the English-dubbed version -- in Japanese his name translated as "Ironsharp") in the delightfully inept, low-budget science fiction film Invasion of the Neptune Men. That film, which was shown on American television throughout the 1960s and even given the Mystery Science Theater 3000 "treatment" in the 1990s, was easily Chiba's most widely distributed film internationally for the first 14 years of his career. Over the next decade, he was cast primarily in crime thrillers (and one more science fiction effort, Terror Beneath the Sea). He also changed his name to Sonny Chiba, initially because of his association with a Toyota advertising campaign for a car called the Sunny-S.
By 1969, he had started his own training school for actors aspiring to work in martial arts films, and in 1973, in the wake of the international craze for such films started by Bruce Lee, he returned to the screen himself as an actor. Chiba's breakthrough international hit was The Street Fighter (1974), which established him as the reigning Japanese martial arts actor in international cinema for the next two decades. His subsequent hits included such pictures as Bullet Train (1975), Karate Warriors (1976), Doberman Cop (1977), and The Assassin (1977). He also occasionally returned to the science fiction genre, in movies such as Message From Space (1978). Chiba was even busier in the 1980s, doing dozens of movies as well as making forays into television, and with roles in such high profile adventures as The Storm Riders (1998) his fame in Japan remained unabated into the 1990s. In his fifties, the actor resumed working under the name Shinichi Chiba when he served as a choreographer of martial arts sequences. At the dawn of the 21st century, Chiba was as busy as ever in feature films and also starring in his own series in Japan. Roles in Takashi Miike's Deadly Outlaw: Rekka and directors Kenta and Kenji Fukusaku's Battle Royale II effectively bridged the gap between modern day and yesteryear cinematic cult legend, Chiba's enduring onscreen career recieved a fitting tribute when the ageing but still formidable talent appeared in a key role in director Quentin Tarantino's bloody revenge epic Kill Bill in 2003.