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Mr. Kono and the Tramp

Times Staff Writer

CHARLIE CHAPLIN traveled to Japan just four times in his long life and only narrowly missed being assassinated by a gang of rogue naval officers on one of those visits.

But the Japanese loved Charlie and his Tramp. Still do. Chaplin’s films and Tramp character carved a lasting place in Japanese culture, and new evidence of a little-discussed relationship with his longtime Japanese assistant is offering fresh opportunities to explore one of the most poked and perused lives of the 20th century.

The barely mined Japanese connection is what drew many of the world’s top Chaplinologists as well as a few hundred fans and the late comedian’s daughter Josephine to the first conference on Chaplin in Japan.

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Convened in an unheated former elementary school in chilly Kyoto one weekend last month, they swapped business cards and traded Chaplin anecdotes, examining such questions as how much influence Kabuki theater had on his art and what moved prewar Japanese movie audiences to embrace a movie character they originally dubbed Strange Person and, later, Professor Alcohol.

“I’m searching for an explanation of why Chaplin’s Tramp has had such resonance in so many cultures for so long and why he keeps popping up everywhere,” says Kathryn Millard, an Australian shooting “Here Comes Charlie,” a feature documentary on Chaplin’s influence around the world. “It’s not just about the appeal of silent film stars. It’s that the Tramp seems infinitely adaptable.”

But the honey that drew the specialists to Kyoto was the recent emergence of documents and photographs from the estate of Chaplin’s longtime assistant Toraichi Kono, a Japanese national who had settled in California. Kono went to work as the star’s driver in 1916 and was, for the next 18 years if you believe his most enthusiastic Japanese supporters, one of the comedian’s closest confidants.

The FBI had another view. They thought Kono became a Japanese spy after he left Chaplin’s employ in the mid-1930s. In the run-up to Pearl Harbor, with Japanese-American tensions rising, they caught Kono meeting with Japanese naval officers looking for information about U.S. naval deployments. He was arrested, released and then quickly interned after the attack.

That hazy, curious life story has somehow remained below Hollywood’s radar. The question, as phrased by conference organizer Hiroyuki Ono, the leading authority on Kono and who is writing his biography, is: “Why did the right-hand man of the world’s greatest comedian disappear from history?”

Until Ono started asking questions, the truth about what Kono did for his movie star boss -- and perhaps for the Japanese navy -- had disappeared into the mists. Chaplin called Kono his secretary in the fleeting references he made to him in his 1964 autobiography (though that’s not unusual -- plenty of people close to the star, including his second wife, never got a mention by name either). He also had minor roles -- as a chauffeur -- in three Chaplin films, though he was credited in just one: 1917’s “The Adventurer.”

But Ono sees Kono, who died in 1971 and whose ashes are buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery, as much more than a gofer: He was Chaplin’s gatekeeper. Although Ono says the relationship between the men was “never warm,” he cites dozens of letters intended for Chaplin but addressed to Kono as evidence the Japanese assistant was the man you had to go through to get to the star.

Ono argues that Kono had such control over Chaplin’s domestic arrangements that at one point in the mid-'20s, all 17 male workers at the actor’s estate were Japanese. And it was Kono, he says, who encouraged his boss to visit Japan for the first time in 1932 and cultivated a love in Chaplin for everything from Japanese literature to tempura (Chaplin’s autobiography cites a book on Japanese theater written by Lafcadio Hearn as the source of his curiosity).

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A new chapter is opened

ONO’S fascination with Chaplin began 22 years ago when, at age 9, he saw “The Great Dictator” on Japanese TV. As an adult, he has visited all the Chaplin haunts: from the south London of his impoverished childhood to the road in California where the Tramp walks off into the unknown arm in arm with Paulette Goddard’s gamin at the end of “Modern Times.”

An energetic storyteller dripping with enthusiasm, Ono is what the Japanese would kindly call an otaku -- a Chaplin geek.

In 2004, he met Kono’s second wife, who uncrated hundreds of photos and letters for him and gave approval for a biography that would unveil the driver-valet-fixer’s importance in the Chaplin pantheon. Ono took news of his find to a July 2005 Chaplin conference in London, where the assembled Chaplin scholars excitedly encouraged him to host his own conference in Japan.

The result was a three-day gathering that made up for a lack of slickness in presentation with a big dose of authenticity and spirit. The venue -- an abandoned school in a Kyoto neighborhood that has become an “entertainment” district -- was cold and drafty. But it was also the site of the first movie screening in the country and a perfect reminder of the Japan Chaplin encountered when he visited in the 1930s: austere but welcoming, with everyone enraptured by the Tramp.

And the discovery of the supporting role played by a Japanese assistant seeded a wider discussion about the extraordinary reach of the Tramp into other cultures and the endurance of Chaplin’s appeal. (There are Chaplin festivals and conferences around the world virtually every year dissecting his cross-cultural appeal.)

Japan was hardly immune to the Tramp’s charms. Movie screens were dominated by American films in the early years of the century, just as Japan was embracing everything the West had to offer in the name of modernization. In an analysis of Chaplin’s popularity at the time, Japan’s great novelist Junichiro Tanizaki wrote admiringly about the “dynamism of slapstick,” citing it as an example of the dynamism of American society.

But Chaplin’s appeal in Japan went beyond belly laughs. From “A Dog’s Life” to “The Gold Rush,” Chaplin’s films were regarded as tragic dramas.

“My students all seem to respond more strongly to Chaplin than to other filmmakers,” said Jeffrey Tarlofsky, who has taught a Chaplin course at four Japanese universities. He cites the case of three members of a sumo team who took his course and blubbered through the rescue scene in “The Kid.”

“These are boys who were not, shall we say, noted for their academic abilities,” Tarlofsky recalled. “But they are large kids, and you could hear these great big gasps coming from the back of the room.”

Ono also argues it was Chaplin’s melancholy that appealed to the Japanese. “They would say: ‘Don’t you hear the sad song coming from his soul?’ ”

In 1931, just six months after the world premiere of “City Lights,” a Kabuki company adapted it in a piece called “Komori no Yasusan,” with a lead actor in a Chaplin mustache and the boxing scene converted into a sumo wrestling match.

Chaplin made his first visit to Japan a year later, shepherded by Kono. His autobiography describes it as a trip bristling with intimidation and violence.

The visit’s defining moment came while Chaplin watched a sumo match with Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai’s son, Ken, on the afternoon of May 15. Six young naval officers broke into the leader’s official residence in Tokyo and murdered the prime minister, hoping to spark a revolution that would reinstate an emperor-based government.

Their plot dissolved. But later court-martial testimony into what the Japanese call the May 15 Incident suggested the officers had debated killing Chaplin as well, on the dubious premise it would provoke the U.S. into war with Japan.

But the conference in Kyoto skipped over any discussion of the political violence of those times. Chaplin was a leading critic of fascism, militarism and imperialism -- extremist forces that were all swelling in strength in Japan during that visit and two more in 1936.

Yet there was no discussion on what effect Japanese nationalism might have had on him his politics or films. And it was noted but never deeply discussed that Japan’s wartime government banned “The Great Dictator,” Chaplin’s film skewering Adolf Hitler. It was not shown in Japan until 1960.

Ono said the conference ignored Chaplin’s collision with nationalist extremism because the near assassination of the world’s greatest comedian is well known in Japan -- a debatable statement in a country whose school texts are notoriously skimpy on the history of that dark period.

Instead the participants stuck safely to a mandate of uncovering evidence of Chaplin’s Japanophilia. They learned he once devoured 30 shrimp tempura in one sitting. And they heard from Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, a leading TV personality who met Chaplin in New York in 1972, that the actor told her of his love for Japan, even bursting into tears at the sight of her in a kimono.

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A falling-out

KONO’S story -- the driver entered Chaplin’s orbit in 1916, by which time he had been living off and on in California for more than a dozen years -- was the perfect catalyst for the conference. Unlike many Japanese who arrived in America fleeing poverty, Kono was a party guy running from the restraints of an arranged marriage and a wealthy but demanding father.

He was a pilot whose first wife wouldn’t let him fly, and he worked in a shop and as a houseboy before meeting Chaplin at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where the actor then lived.

Their relationship didn’t end until 1934, when Kono complained about the spending habits of Goddard, Chaplin’s third wife. Chaplin sided with his wife. Kono walked out. “It was a matter of face for him,” says Ono.

Kono did take up Chaplin’s offer to become the Japan representative of United Artists (which Chaplin co-owned) but quit after a year, muttering about sabotage from other Chaplin employees. He then slid into a social world that included Japanese naval spies who were scouting for information on U.S. Navy battleships. The FBI arrested Kono on espionage charges, though the allegations were dropped in favor of attempts to deport him.

But when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Kono was rearrested the same day. He spent the war in internment camps, where he ran the projector on movie nights, just as he had done for the screenings at the Chaplin mansion, says Clyde Kusatsu, a Los Angeles actor and filmmaker who is finishing a shooting script for a documentary on Kono.

He was not released until 1948.

Kono’s defenders say he never was a spy, though he did sign a confession while in custody. Ono contends that Kono sought only to be a bridge between Japan and America. “While the Japanese navy may have used Kono as a tool, we do not believe he betrayed the United States,” Ono says.

Kono fought further attempts to deport him after the war but by the 1950s had returned to his birthplace of Hiroshima. He was living there in 1961 when Chaplin came to Japan for the last time.

On that trip, Chaplin went to Hiroshima, where he visited the Peace Memorial Park built below the spot where the atomic bomb was detonated. Kono lived in an apartment facing the park.

The two never met.

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Contact Wallace at calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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