Sonny Chiba, a Japanese action star who was known for ultraviolent martial arts movies and then, in 2003, was elevated to a whole new level of cinematic trendiness when one of his superfans, the director Quentin Tarantino, gave him a role in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” died on Wednesday. He was 82.
His manager and friend, Timothy Beal, said the cause was Covid-19. Oricon, the Japanese news service, said he died at a hospital in Kimitsu, Japan.
Mr. Chiba, who was trained in karate and other martial arts, began turning up on Japanese television in his early 20s. He was soon making movies as well, amassing more than 50 TV and film credits in Japan before the end of the 1960s. In the ’70s, with martial arts movies enjoying broad popularity thanks to the American-born Chinese star Bruce Lee, Mr. Chiba became widely known in Japan and beyond, especially because of “The Street Fighter” (1974) and its sequels.
“The Street Fighter,” in which his character battled gangsters, was so violent that when it was released in the United States it was said to have been the first movie given an X rating for violence alone.
“If nothing else,” A.H. Weiler wrote in a brief review in The New York Times in 1975, when the movie played in New York, “this Japanese-made, English-dubbed import illustrates that its inane violence deserves the X rating with which it has been labeled.” In 1996, when a DVD of the film was released, The Los Angeles Times said it was being “presented complete and uncut in all its eye-gouging, testicle-ripping, skull-pounding glory.”
“The Street Fighter” and other Chiba movies made an impression on Mr. Tarantino. In the homage-filled “Kill Bill, Vol. 1,” he cast Mr. Chiba as the sword maker Hattori Hanzo, who provides Uma Thurman’s vengeful character with her weapon. A.O. Scott, reviewing the movie in The New York Times, got the reference but wasn’t enamored of it.
“Check it out, Mr. Tarantino seems to be saying, Sonny Chiba’s in my movie,” he wrote. “How cool is that? Way too cool? Not cool enough? As I said, it depends. The movie-geek in-jokes are sometimes amusing and sometimes annoying.”
In any case, Mr. Tarantino brought Mr. Chiba back the next year for “Kill Bill: Vol. 2,” and he enjoyed a late-career resurgence.
He was a Yakuza boss in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” in 2006 and a sushi chef in the noir thriller “Sushi Girl” in 2012, among other roles. Mr. Beal said that before the pandemic, Mr. Chiba had been lined up for a role in a zombie movie called “Outbreak Z.”
Mr. Chiba, who also acted under the name Shinichi Chiba, was born Sadaho Maeda on Jan. 23, 1939, in Fukuoka, Japan. His acting career received a boost when he was signed by Japan’s Toei studio in the early 1960s.
Mr. Chiba made numerous movies, mostly samurai dramas, with the Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku, who gave him some of his earliest roles. He came to distance himself from the violence-drenched “Street Fighter” films — “That sort of performance is not the performance I am particularly proud of as an actor,” he told The Times in 2003 — but he looked more kindly on his work with Mr. Fukasaku.
“Mr. Fukasaku was very sensitive to violence,” Mr. Chiba said. “His constant question was, ‘What is violence? What is authority? What is power?’ Ultimately, he denied violence, and always sided with the weak.”
Martial arts, Mr. Chiba said, was not that different from acting.
“Martial arts is part of the drama — it’s performance,” he said, “It’s a way of expressing emotions.”
Information on Mr. Chiba’s survivors was not immediately available.