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Mr. Kono and the Tramp

Toraichi Kono, an aide to Charlie Chaplin for years, was forgotten until crates of his papers came to light.

April 16, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Kyoto, Japan — 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.

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.

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