Street Fighting Man: Samurai Reincarnation Star Sonny Chiba Was a Kinji Fukasaku Favorite

| Hannah Baxter |

A man in an ornate red and purple robe holds a gold hilted sword with his right hand. He is standing to the right of a woman in purple kimono.

Samurai Reincarnation plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, April 12th, through Sunday, April 14th. Visit for tickets and more information.

Kinji Fukasaku and Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, who stars in Samurai Reincarnation (1981), collaborated regularly throughout Fukasaku’s 40-year, genre-straddling directorial career. Chiba appeared in nearly a third of Fukasaku’s output, including the first four movies that he directed in 1961. You read that right: they made four movies together in one year. Chiba also had a minor role in the very last film that Fukasaku was involved in: Battle Royale II (2003) was a sequel to the notorious Battle Royale (2000), a film so violent it was only released on video in the U.S. Fukasaku died of cancer after filming only one scene of Battle Royale II; his son, Kenta Fukasaku, finished the project.

As a young man, Chiba trained as a gymnast. A bad injury ended his dream of competing in the Olympics. In the early 1960s, he decided to give acting a try. He was in his early twenties when he auditioned for Toei studios’ New Faces talent search,1 and he was quickly cast in starring roles on television. Within a year, he was acting in movies. 

It was a Toei movie, Shigehiro Ozawa’s The Street Fighter (1974) that made Chiba’s name internationally, in more ways than one: the film’s U.S. distributor decided to bill him as “Sonny.” (Born Sadaho Maeda in 1939, he adopted the stage name Shinichi Chiba when he began acting.) Chiba stars as Takuma Tsurugi, an ornery guy who likes getting his hands dirty—or rather, bloody: The Street Fighter was the first movie to be rated X for violence in the United States.

A shirtless Chiba kneels next to a prone combatant, yelling and gesturing as his opponent raises a hand in self-defense.

Chiba (billed as “Sonny” for the first time) in The Street Fighter

His performances in films like The Street Fighter established Chiba’s reputation as the “Japanese Bruce Lee” in the West. In Fukasaku’s Doberman Cop (1977), however, he’s more reminiscent of Jackie Chan. The film’s title suggests a hard-bitten detective grimacing around his cigarette as he drags some hoodlum into the station by their collar. Instead, Chiba’s Joji Kano is introduced wearing a straw hat and carrying a small pig in his arms as he strolls through Tokyo’s neon-lit streets. Kano is from Okinawa (which, I gather, equates to “the country”), and he’s in Tokyo to meet with police about the murder of an Okinawan woman. The pig is a gift for the chief.

A shopkeeper in a pink shirt asks a skeptical Joji Kano, “Are you homeless or what? And you’re so young.”

Chiba is out of place in the big city as Joji Kano in Doberman Cop

Kano is goofy, but the action scenes aren’t played for laughs. Chiba rappels down the side of a skyscraper and busts through a plate glass window. He escapes from pursuers by sliding on his belly over the roof of a car and hopping on the back of a motorcycle. He takes on a dozen guys at a time, delivering roundhouse kicks in the white jeans and three-quarter-sleeve leather jacket that he wears in every. Single. Scene.

Doberman Cop was another Toei picture. Whatever Chiba lacked in formal acting training he made up for, in Toei’s view, with his black belt in karate. He admitted in a 1997 interview that he’d wanted to play a greater range of roles and even developed movie treatments to that end. However, he said, “Toei always pushed the extreme action-hero image.” Chiba felt his “professional survival” depended on accepting, and excelling in, the kinds of roles that the studio helped him build a career around, so he trained relentlessly,2 even as he founded the Japan Action Club, a workshop where Japanese actors could hone their craft the way American actors did. By “action” he meant acting.

Chiba appeared in Doberman Cop and eight other films in 1977; by comparison, the following year was a little slow—this is, after all, a guy who made more than 250 movies by his count. Two of the four films Chiba made in 1978 were directed by Fukasaku. First came Shogun’s Samurai, “a tough drama about strong people” per the theatrical preview, which credits Fukasaku with revitalizing jidaigeki, or period dramas, by directing the film “in his own way.”3

“His way” means a few different things. For one, there’s a lot of blood. For another, Fukasaku favors camerawork that forces you to pay attention to it, choosing unusual angles or shooting action scenes with a handheld camera, for example. Also, like much of Fukusaku’s work, the film concerns itself with the lives of ordinary people, vividly confronting their cruel treatment by wealthy nobles. “Fukasaku’s attitude is ‘you never know, this might have happened,’” Chiba said of the director’s approach to period dramas, calling him “almost a revolutionary.”4 The nobles are, in fact, the main characters, but that doesn’t mean we have to like them. 

Like Samurai Reincarnation, Shogun’s Samurai offers an alternative history of the Tokugawa shogunate, a 17th-century ruling dynasty. In both films Chiba plays Jubei Yagyu, the shogun’s swordsmanship instructor. Not much is known about the real Jubei, so he’s ripe for fictionalization.5 He’s often portrayed with an eyepatch, for instance, even though there’s no record of an eye injury. Chiba played Jubei in four films, at least two TV series, and (according to Wikipedia) a stage musical version of Samurai Reincarnation.

A smiling young woman embraces Jubei Yagyu, who laughs and smiles, surrounded by happy friends.

Chiba as a cheerful Jubei Yagyu in Shogun’s Samurai

In Shogun’s Samurai, Chiba’s Jubei is lively and charismatic–joking, laughing, and standing up for the little guy. Samurai Reincarnation, on the other hand, is a movie in which no one smiles (unless it’s the rueful smile of an orphan complimented on the song she composed for her murdered family) and no one laughs (unless it’s the cackle of a body-snatching demon wreaking vengeance for the slaughter of thousands). In Samurai Reincarnation, Chiba portrays Jubei as cautious and observant. His hair is styled in a fluffy, high ponytail, like his own personal dark cloud. He shows up gunning for a fight with another historical samurai, Musashi Miyamoto (whom Chiba portrayed, incidentally, at least three times). Musashi would absolutely love to fight Jubei. The problem is, he’s dead—but it’s a temporary condition.

Actually, everybody in this movie wants to fight Jubei. That includes his dad, Tajima Yagyu, whose dying regret is that he never challenged his son to a duel. Thanks to boss demon Shiro Amakusa (the real-life leader of a Catholic rebellion against the shogun), Tajima gets the chance after all. Keep an eye out for the scene in which an undead Tajima beckons to his wary son in what has got to be the most spine-tingling moment in a jidaigeki since Yoshiaki Miki’s ghost showed up in Throne of Blood.

Chiba is seen running along a beach toward the viewer; he wears an eyepatch and brandishes a sword.

Chiba is all business as Jubei Yagyu in Samurai Reincarnation

Samurai Reincarnation is an ensemble movie, and a wordy one. Amakusa opens the movie with a several-hundred-word disquisition. Jubei, who gradually emerges as the hero, doesn’t give any lengthy speeches; he’s too busy being badass, sparring with undead samurai on the beach and in a burning castle. Clad all in black and wearing that eyepatch, Chiba cuts quite the dashing, Dread Pirate Roberts-esque figure. Shogun’s Samurai, too, offers him opportunities to show off his fencing skills, do a little cliff diving, and mount horses “in his own way”—by simply jumping up onto their backs, natch. Yes, Chiba did his own stunts. Was he, in fact, the most interesting man in the world? (“I don’t always play Jubei Yagyu, but when I do, I prefer to wear an eyepatch.”) Certainly, he’s more than good looks and a collection of jaw-dropping moves: the man can act. Watch him in Shogun’s Samurai cradling a comrade’s body and shouting “Don’t cry!” at their grieving friend. I dare you to remain unmoved. 

Just after Shogun’s Samurai was released, another Fukasaku movie arrived in theaters. Message from Space (1978) sees the warlike Gavanatians conquer the peace-loving Jilutians, who send eight sacred seeds into space and…whatever. You get the idea. Chiba wears a horned helmet and Bowie-adjacent makeup as Prince Hans, an ousted Gavanatian royal. He joins forces with a handful of earthlings, including a space-going hotrodder played by the wonderful Hiroyuki Sanada, a Japan Action Club member and protégé of Chiba’s who costars in Shogun’s Samurai and Samurai Reincarnation. Sanada ultimately had the international success that Chiba said he desired, appearing in the likes of The Wolverine (2013) and John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023) as well as series like Lost and FX’s Shogun. Chiba blamed his limited English for his being cast in so few Western films, but he did win superfans in the Anglophone world, including, inevitably, Quentin Tarantino (who cast him in Kill Bill Volume I [2003] and Volume II [2004]), and adorkably, Keanu Reeves.

Five people gather in the cockpit of a spaceship. Chiba wears silver armor and red makeup around his eyes; he leans over to talk to the pilot.

Message from Space came out just a few months after Shogun’s Samurai; Chiba (left) and Hiroyuki Sanada (center) appeared in both

It probably wasn’t Message from Space that won those two over, though. The film was clearly inspired by Star Wars, but then, this was 1978. The sets, costumes, and model ships are gorgeous, the explosions plentiful. 1970s-era Dr. Who only wishes it had this budget (and Fukasaku as a guest director). The plot would be right at home in middle-period Who, too, but at 105 minutes’ running time, this movie will try your patience. 

At the time, Message from Space was the most expensive Japanese film ever made. It was eclipsed two years later by another Fukasaku film, Virus (1980).6 You’ll want to watch Virus wearing the amateur virologist hat you acquired living through an actual global pandemic:

(shouting, gesturing at slide deck)
At minus three degrees centigrade the virus’ reproductive rate is increased by a factor of 100!

That’s not how viruses replicate.

We put together a soup of every flu-related vaccine we know.

That’s not how vaccine development works.

I sat through all two-and-a-half hours of this movie on alert for Chiba, who has a throwaway role as a research scientist. He never gets to kick anyone’s ass. In fact, next to no asses are kicked in this film from a renowned director of ass kicking. It’s a shame.

 Chiba and other actors gather around a CB radio. The subtitle reads “Could you please explain, if possible…” Added to the image are the words “...why I don’t have a bigger role in this movie?”

Fukasaku cast Chiba as a research scientist in his 1980 film Virus

Sadly, Chiba died in 2021 of complications from COVID. He was 82 and still working: his next project was said to be Outbreak Z, a zombie flick starring Wesley Snipes and Jesse Ventura that before the pandemic intervened was set to be filmed “in the heart of” Minnesota (!). Maybe not the illustrious capstone to his international filmography that he’d have liked, but Chiba never phoned it in; he’d have committed to Outbreak Z the same way he did to every role, whether it required an eyepatch or a space helmet or a straw hat. 


1 Chris D., Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film (London: L.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2005), 54.
2 Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, 54.
3 Theatrical preview, Shogun’s Samurai, directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Kyoto, Japan: Toei Co., Ltd., 1978), DVD.
4 Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, 56.
5 Zack Davisson, “Historical Notes,” Shogun’s Samurai.
6 The lovingly detailed Wikipedia page for Message from Space cites actual printed books to back up this claim, so I’m reporting it here with confidence.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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