A Sonny Chiba interview: Acting, martial arts and family

The interview had concluded and Sonny Chiba (千葉 真一) had tears in his eyes – not, I assume, because our on-the-record conversation was over (although he did express out loud that we should keep chatting for another hour), but because he was continuing his thoughts about a pending film project.  While he was explaining the synopsis and asking for my opinion, the visibly-moved Chiba’s insistence on a validation of his work was indicative of the blood, sweat and tears poured into a career that stretches all the way back to 1959.

For this longevity, Chiba was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the inaugural Singafest Asian Film Festival in Los Angeles.  Meniscus Magazine was the primary media sponsor of this event, hosting a private dinner for Chiba, two of his children (Juri Manase and Mackenyu Maeda, who both followed their father’s footsteps into acting) and several associates just prior to the award ceremony.  The following day, we sat down with Chiba to talk about his work, his family and why – when asked about his proudest achievement – he still strives for more in his career.  (This previously unpublished interview took place Oct. 2, 2011.)

Yuan-Kwan Chan: All right, we’re here with Sonny Chiba.  Congratulations on your Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sonny Chiba:  Thank you very much.  Thank you so much.

I know that a Lifetime Achievement Award for you is not “the end” because you still very much want to continue working as much as possible.  But looking back on what you’ve done so far, what are you proudest of?

Looking back on my career – all my career happened in Japan, mostly.  When I came to the United States and tried to get into the industry, I felt like, ‘Wow, what I did was on a very small scale.  I can do more.’  So, I would like to do more in the United States.  Not just only the United States, but the whole world.  I’d like to continue and let everybody know about Japanese culture through movies.

Yesterday before our dinner, I was told by the festival organizers that you’d be bringing members of your team to dinner and I thought, oh, he’s going to bring members of the Japan Action Club or some stuntmen.  But you ended up bringing a couple of your children.  It was very clear to me that you have a very close bond with Juri and Mackenyu and then Gordon [who wasn’t present at the dinner but appeared at the ceremony].  What advice have you given to them since they seem to want to follow your steps into acting, martial arts and other areas?

As you know, Juri’s already an actress in Japan and she’s trying to come to the United States.  My older son – the middle child – Mackenyu, yes, he is interested in getting into this type of career as well.  But not the youngest one, Gordon.  He’s not interested in becoming an actor.

I haven’t really given any advice to either Juri or Mackenyu because they’ve been seeing me acting, they’ve been seeing me working.  I think that’s really enough.  I really don’t have anything to teach them.  They see me working as an actor, so I think that’s enough.

The entertainment industry can always be, you know, very up and down.  Were you concerned when they decided to follow that career path?  Or you’re really excited that they wanted to be actors and martial artists?

As far as getting excited or maybe being a little concerned about my children, I really didn’t have any of those feelings.  My children are very independent so I am not too concerned or worried about them being in the entertainment industry.  I can let them be free.  If they really want to get involved with this business then yes, they can, but if they’re not, then I don’t really care.

In the past, in Japan when I was active [in films], I always wanted to go to the United States and enter the global movie industry.  But when I was born, Japan was at war with the U.S., and the whole society was even saying, “Don’t speak the language of an enemy.”  Even though I wanted to speak English and to be able to succeed at an international [level] in the U.S., I wasn’t allowed to learn or speak it.  I didn’t want my kids to feel the same way I did. I wanted my kids to challenge in the international playing field and that’s why I moved to the United States with my family.  So in retrospect, I’m happy with my decision.

You worked with Quentin Tarantino in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” with your daughter, and you were both involved as actors and as trainers for some of the fight sequences.  And I’m curious: you’re kind of working with your daughter as a colleague but then you’re also her father.  How do you balance those roles when you’re on set?

On the set, I really don’t think about her as a daughter.  She is an actress that I am working with in the movie.  I am treating her as a professional actress, not my daughter.  Off set, of course, I care about and think of her as my daughter.  But working on the set, even though I worry about things like acting a little bit – she’s professional, she’s pretty good.  So, I don’t have to worry about her being my daughter [on set] – just being an actress who I am working with.  It’s been working out.

I want to go back into some of your background before you got into martial arts.  I understand you were a gymnast, an Olympic level gymnast, and then you got injured and later turned to martial arts.  Had you not been injured, would you have still gone into martial arts at university?  Or would you have stayed with gymnastics and not practiced martial arts?

If I didn’t get injured, then yes, I definitely would have pursued my career as a gymnast to be able to get into the Olympics, and then win the gold medal to have a Japanese flag raised.  That was my passion.  When I was in middle school, I was watching the Olympics, and saw that those winning [athletes] had their flags [raised].  I was very moved and thought, ‘I have to do that.  I have to bring the Japanese flag up there.’  So, that was my passion, and I never had the desire to even become a martial artist or movie actor back then.

Being one of the first to break through as a martial artist on the big screen, whenever something is new, someone may be skeptical.  Did it take much convincing of studios and executives to say, ‘We want to show live action martial arts on film’ or was it something…that you really had to champion and push out there?

If there were any difficulties in [becoming] a martial artist, acting in the first person?  Not really.  I had all the confidence to be able to do so.  I just asked those people and said that this was what I wanted to do, and everybody followed my idea.  My idea was that I did not like to use stuntmen. I like to do everything on my own.

For example, of course, martial arts.  I thought that the idea of having martial arts in the movies would be really good. Riding horses, I don’t use a stuntman to do it.  I even have a license to operate small planes because I don’t like to use any other people to operate the plane.  So, I have a license.

How many times have you flown planes in films?

Twice, yes.  Just a small plane, of course, a Cessna.  Jumbo, jumbo, no. [laughs]

So, it won’t be like JAL [Japan Airlines] anytime soon.

That is my philosophy.  I would like to do anything that I can [physically] do to use in movies.  I don’t like to use a substitute or a stuntman.  That’s maybe one thing that I am teaching my children to experience: anything that they want to do, they can do.  It’s very important.  Those are the nutrients for being an actor: to experience, absorb and get whatever skills that they can get. For example, my son Mackenyu, he’s doing so many things.  One day he’s playing a musical instrument, the other day he is doing karate, and then also he’s playing water polo and swimming, and then another day he’s in a brass band.  So many things.  But I think that’s what is in my blood, I can tell.  I can see those qualities in him is my blood.

You’ve been known for many roles over the years.  Hattori Hanzo being one.  But when I mention your name to some of my writers and some of my colleagues, everybody mentions “Street Fighter.”  I’m curious about your career path leading up to that movie.  Do you feel like each role that you took in TV and film kind of built up to that, or you just sort of broke off on your own and said, ‘This is really a type of film that I need to make?’

It’s not really a buildup, acting [in that particular] role.  When I was young, I had a contract with Toei, a movie company.  When I was with Toei, there was a quota on how many movies I had to appear in.  Sometimes they forced me to be in a role that I didn’t think that I would be good at or I didn’t think was my type. But because I was forced to do it, I actually learned something.  I had to study, I had to think about it, I had to do it.  Then the repetition, or the building up, of those roles that I really didn’t think that I could do became my career in acting.  Now that’s why I can say that my acting career has a wide range because of those times that I had to perform the roles that I didn’t think I would be good at.

Actually, I can say that it’s a buildup in that sense.

I wanted to follow up with a question I asked earlier regarding gymnastics.  You said that had you not gotten hurt, you would have stayed with gymnastics.  But since you did suffer an injury, what made you turn to martial arts?

I didn’t start off as a martial artist right away.  After my health was ruined, I became an actor.  Then, being an actor, I felt like I needed martial arts also.  So, at first I became an actor and then I started to learn martial arts.

I was so surprised to see Bruce Lee coming out with martial arts [films] because I [and my colleagues] were practicing martial arts to be able to use in a movie five years before Bruce Lee actually came out onscreen.  So, we were already practicing, practicing, and then one day we saw Bruce Lee onscreen doing all those martial arts.  We were like, ‘What?!  [laughs] This is great!’

My next question has to do with branching out to other productions outside Japan.  You mentioned the United States but you did work on a Hong Kong film, “The Storm Riders,” with Ekin Cheng Yi-Kin and Aaron Kwok Fu-Shing.  I’m curious about your experience there because I’ve heard other Japanese actors talk about the differences in working on Japanese sets versus Hong Kong, the amount of hours, the number of times you perform stunts.  Can you speak about your experience on “The Storm Riders?”

To go back to the experience in Hong Kong of being on the set: the really great director of this movie, Andrew Lau, was actually looking for me for one year.  In his mind, the role of Xiong Ba (the Lord Conqueror) had to be acted by me.

Then I was in Hong Kong for two months.  The shooting itself, the whole work, it was very, very tight.  And very hard.  But I really had a great time.  The director was fantastic.  All the actors were really great.  I played a character and I just blended into the culture even though I didn’t speak the language.  [points finger with right hand] ‘Tonight.’ [makes gestures as if eating rice out of a bowl] ‘Eat!  Okay?’ That kind of communication.

So, I really had fun.  I really had a great time.

That’s good.  So despite the long hours it was worth it.

Yes.   I went to the Hong Kong Film Awards because I was nominated for Best Actor honors for the movie.

Yesterday we got to see “Samurai Reincarnation.”  It was the first time I had seen it and you’d mentioned over dinner that it was an example of a drama that you’re really proud of in terms of your role.  From a viewer – from my perspective – since it was the first time I’d seen it, it looked like a really difficult movie.  You’re fighting with an eye patch and then there’s that scene in the end with all the fire.  Can you explain a bit about how that shoot worked and how hard it was?

[in English, points all around the room] Fire, fire, fire, fire…everything, everything okay?  Okay, fire….and action!  Okay, start!  [raises hands and shrinks back as if everything is burning around him]

[translated] I think you can tell that it was chaos.  It was very hard.  Of course, not only am I wearing the patch but back then, there was no CG.  All the fire that you saw was real fire.  So, when the shooting started, the director said, “Okay, the fire, fire, fire.  Is the fire ready?”  And then when the fire is burning, we can’t even do an NG [Ed. Note: in Japanese film and TV shoots, this is an acronym that stands for “No Good” which means that the scene cannot be used for the final product].  We can’t even fail.

As you can imagine, we were surrounded by fire and then we had to act.  The director said, ‘Okay, action!’  There’s a fire going on, we’re saying the dialogue and I’m speaking, the [other] actor is speaking and it seems to be going well.  And then I noticed that my sword had caught on fire. I said, “Oh, my God, there is fire on my sword!’  That was because the paint on the sword [was highly flammable].  So, that’s what happened.  [in English] ‘Okay, stop, stop!’ Yeah, honto hard.  Very hard.

And you were saying earlier with NGs.  That meant you could only shoot once and that was it, right?  Only one take.

Exactly.  No NG because when something like that happens, they have to put all the fire out.  Then they would have to build another set because it’s all burned down to ashes.  So, yes, of course, they would have had to redo it again.  They can’t just use the same set.

And with the eye patch, I think I read that, you know, you were actually using your bad eye to see?

It was very, very hard to do martial arts acting with one eye, with having a eye patch, because you lose your distance.  So, sometimes I got hit in my head because if you’re doing sword fighting and don’t have a sense of distance, you get hit [laughs].  So, very, very hard.  Very difficult.  Very tiring.

I’ll mention a couple of things that some of your countrymen have talked about in the past.  Tak Sakaguchi has come to New York a couple of times to talk about his films and doing action roles.  He said one problem that he found is that in the current generation of Asian action stars, it’s hard to find people his age who understand the foundation of traditional martial arts.  So, if you want to hold a samurai sword the correct way, he says now there are very few people who can do it because a lot of the movies mix everything up.  Have you been finding the same with the younger generation as well or not so much?  Do you agree with what Taku has said?

I totally agree.  I feel the same way.  To be an actor – a Japanese actor who represents the Japanese culture – they really have to study the basic traditional martial arts if they want to become an actor who does them.  Right now, I think the one reason that they’re not making many samurai movies is that these actors may need those basic traditional skills.  But at the same time, with this young generation, there is really a lack of attention to study.  They have to really study.  If you want to represent Japan as a Japanese actor, you really have to study Japanese culture and traditions.

Your costar in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” Chiaki Kuriyama, mentioned that in Japan, it’s very much a TV-centered entertainment industry where the big stars tend to be television stars.  In other places like the States, it’s the reverse.  You know, we look at film and then television.  Why is that the case?  You’ve done a lot of film, you’ve done a lot of television, but what Chiaki said, why is it that it’s more TV-centered than film, do you think?

I believe that it’s the same [in Japan] as the United States.  I think that movie stars have much more charisma.  It’s a higher level, I believe.  So, I think that what Chiaki Kuriyama says is not right because I really did grow up as an actor in movies.

Movie sets have solid lighting and a solid director.  It’s very hard.  There are so many tests that they are repeating that they will not really compromise by doing just one cut. They have to do it again and again and again to get the perfect film.  So, to me, movies are where real actors are.  Television – I won’t say it’s easy but it’s not as hard as the movies.  It’s the real thing with film – you become a real actor then.  That’s really where it is, the movies.

A real actor learns a lot in movies.  The director won’t immediately say yes; they won’t compromise. They repeat the same scene again and again and again to get the perfect cut.  An actor actually learns through each cut, when they have to repeat the same thing, that they really, really have to study.  That will create a very solid actor in a movie environment.  Back then, when I was becoming an actor, there weren’t many TV programs.  So, I really grew up in the movies and I believe, to be a real actor, you have to be able to act in movies.

Yesterday you were talking about some future projects and one of them was “Golgo 13.”  You played the lead role in the 1977 version but this time you really want to be the mentor to the main character.  As much as you can disclose, can you talk a bit about that project and what it is that you’d like to achieve with it?

That film itself is just really a wonderful, fantastic movie.  Everybody knows about the movie and everyone wanted to play that role.  That unique character, the main character I am thinking of, even though he has to have a Japanese spirit, it would be interesting to use a Japanese-American actor maybe – a cool-spirited person – always cool, cruel sometimes.

But I want to go back to the past of this man.  Who created this man?  What made him become that cool and very unique?  There might be some reason as to why he is like that right now.  So I want to really show that part of the background of the character and  why he became that way: cool, and then cruel.

How far along are you with this project?

Translator: So, he really doesn’t know and he really—I don’t think he can really say.

That’s okay.  I said, ‘as much as you can disclose,’ so I wasn’t sure about pre-production.  But you did also mention last night that you’re working on something with Jackie Chan.  Can you speak about that project?

[holds up a newspaper-sized printout] This is “The Father.” Jackie Chan and me, and my son and his son—

Jaycee, his son Jaycee Chan?

This is a wonderful story.  I, my son Mackenyu, and then Jackie Chan and Jackie Chan’s son – the four of us are going to play the main characters in this movie.  The script is written by me.  This story is based on a true story.  There are so many movies about Genghis Khan, but they don’t talk about his parents – the father and the mother. What kind of family does he have?  What kind of parents has raised the greatest man on earth?  So, this story is about a familial love.

However, Genghis Khan is actually not his [father’s] real son.  His father’s wife was abducted by the enemy. Six months later, he got her back but she was pregnant at that time.  So, the baby’s real father is actually the enemy.  So, he has to raise his enemy’s son as his own son.  That is the story.

I want to show the parents and also, not just Genghis Khan, but what kind of surroundings, what kind of environment he has and what kind of parents need to create this greatest man on earth?  So, that kind of a storyline.

And when does it come out?  Next year?

The script is almost done, probably in the next few months.  I’m going to have to bring the script to Jackie and we’re going to talk about it.  Maybe we’ll have to rewrite here or alter there.  So, hopefully we’d like to start shooting next year.

It’s a very good story, isn’t it?  Do you like it?

It sounds interesting because if you mention Genghis Khan you think, okay, this is going to be an action movie and will be almost stereotypical.

Yeah, exactly.  It’s like a domestic drama, in a way, revolving around Genghis Khan. It’s almost a love story behind it.  A parent’s love, a brotherhood, the friends, all the surroundings.  It’s all love, love stories.  I love the story so much.

And then your role and Jackie’s role, who would play whom?

My role is that of Genghis Khan’s real father.  Jackie Chan is the one who raises Genghis Khan and serves as a trainer in horseback riding, sword fighting and all kinds of things.

Well, we started the interview with family and we end with family.  So, it’s very fitting.

[in English] Exactly [laughs].

Well, thank you so much.

No…thank you.

We enjoyed the interview, and we enjoyed dinner and meeting your family last night.

Thank you very much.

And congratulations again.

Thank you.

Thanks to Jim Higgins, Michael La Breche and Lindsay Morrison for their assistance with the interview, and to Naoko Shirase for translating Sonny Chiba’s answers from Japanese.

Video: 2011 Singafest Asian Film Festival Wrapup

Meniscus Magazine proudly sponsored the inaugural Singafest Asian Film Festival in Los Angeles. VIP guests included Eli Roth and Sonny Chiba during several packed days of screenings, panels and parties.

Filmed by Michael La Breche michael-labreche.com
Edited by Lindsay Morrison lindsaymorrison.com