For almost two decades, said Kusatsu, Kono was Charlie Chaplin’s right-hand man, serving not only as his personal secretary and confidant, but the gatekeeper to one of the best-known faces in the world at that time. Getting through to Chaplin, by even the most powerful men and women in Hollywood, meant going through this aide.
Kono, a native of Hiroshima, Japan, immigrated to the U.S. around 1906 to become a lawyer. Chaplin hired Kono in 1916, beginning a relationship that would make Kono an influential figure in a society with widespread personal and institutional discrimination against people of Asian descent.
“Here’s a story about a Japanese immigrant who, during a time when Asians were relegated to second-class citizens and poorly treated, was closely involved with one of the first truly international motion picture stars and icons — Charlie Chaplin,” said Kusatsu.
Kusatsu told me that Kono would assume a large degree of control over Chaplin’s domestic affairs and even play uncredited roles in numerous Chaplin films.
Kono would leave Chaplin in 1934 after conflicts with Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s third wife. Kono would then work briefly as the Japan representative of United Artists, co-owned by Chaplin.
Shortly afterward, the FBI would arrest Kono for alleged espionage, release him and then intern him after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The precise details are unclear.
The big mystery is how Kono’s role as the confidant of the world’s greatest entertainer at the time could have slipped so easily in obscurity.
Kusatsu, along with three other Asian American filmmakers — Philip W. Chung, Tim Lounibos and Nancy W. Yuen — are seeking answers to that question as they research and produce a documentary film titled “Toraichi Kono: Living in Silence” – a project funded in part from a grant by the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program (CCLPEP).
Kusatsu, well-known for his numerous television and film roles, heard about Kono from director Richard Attenborough, who was working on a movie in the early ’90s about Chaplin that would star Robert Downey, Jr.
“(Attenborough) enthusiastically related how Kono was Charlie’s personal secretary and confidant who helped run his household and life,” said Kusatsu. “Which was ironic then considering how Kono had for the most part disappeared from the story in the final version of the film.”
Kusatsu and Chung one day had breakfast together, the subject of Kono came up, and both quickly became intrigued at the prospect of making a documentary. Actor Lounibos joined the project shortly after. The trio later brought on Yuen, a doctoral candidate in the UCLA Department of Sociology.
“We want to tell Kono’s story and restore him to his place in the historical record of Hollywood,” said Kusatsu. “Because of business relationships, Kono became suspect and a person of interest (to the government), which is really no different than what is going on today where words and actions fall into suspicion, especially if you appear to look like the enemy.
“One has to be always aware that the rights and privileges we take for granted can be usurped and taken away. Kono’s story is relevant when viewed in the light of today’s reaction to security and threats from terrorists. There are more people and institutions today willing to be someone’s advocate as opposed to over 60 years ago when public and government sentiment overwhelmed everything.”
The filmmakers say they are in the middle of the project, but have a long way to go. “We’re in constant research mode and shooting subjects as we find them,” said Kusatsu.