Interviewing Dr. Ono Hiroyuki

Interviewing Dr. Ono Hiroyuki

This month, I interviewed Dr. Ono Hiroyuki, the reigning wunderkind of things Chaplin in Japan. I first met Ono at the London Charlie Chaplin conference a couple of years ago, where it was clear that most folks “in the know” knew about his energy and devotion to Chaplin and his seemingly effortless ability to move mountains when it came to putting on big events in Charlie’s honor. He was already garnering support and enthusiasm for his Chaplin Kono conference that was held well over a year ago already. Since that time, as you will see below, Ono has helped to ignite Chaplin in Japan-or should I say re-ignite-because really the enthusiasm for him has always been there just a little bit under the surface and somewhat dormant.

I met up with Ono by chance in Bologna, Italy last May (May a year ago) when I was there approving graphic choices for Un comico vede il mundo (A Comedian Sees the World). He had been in Bologna doing research at the archive, of course, and I had the pleasure of joining Tim Brock and Cecilia Cenciarelli at dinner on Ono’s last night in town. It was during this dinner that I found out that among Ono’s many talents is his ability to speak good Italian! He is, indeed, an amazing individual. I hope you all enjoy learning much more about him.

Dr. Ono Hiroyuki Ono Hiroyuki was born in Osaka, Japan. He is a film and theatre critic, and director-playwright-composer of the Tottemo Benri Musical Theatre Company. He is also the author of the book Chaplin: Mikokai NG film no Zembo (The Whole Story of Chaplin Out-takes) and The Official Brochure of the Chaplin Film Festival 2003-2004 in Japan. He supervised the Japanese version of the Chaplin DVD set released in 2004. Ono’s musical pieces include “Utsukushii Hito (The Beautiful Man)”, which won the Alice Award in 2003. He lives in Kyoto. He is currently planning to revive the kabuki version of City Lights with Ichikawa Somegoro the 7th. What is the Chaplin Society of Japan and how did you come to found it?

The Chaplin Society of Japan is a Chaplin fan club as well as an academic society for Chaplin researchers. Chaplin’s films are very funny even for those who are seeing them for the first time, and we can find something new even when we see them for the 100th time. We are open to beginners as well as researchers.

Chaplin has been extremely popular in Japan. At the same time, many people still believe the “legends” about him –rumors such as “he is Jewish.” And Chaplin is always considered as a man of love and peace rather than the great comedian. I thought we should modernize our knowledge on the greatest figure of the cinema in this country. Also it is simply fun to communicate with other Chaplin enthusiasts. I have learned many things from older people who have seen Chaplin onscreen for a long time. Someone told me, for instance, that when he saw Modern Times in 1938, there was no strike scene!

Why do you think Chaplin and his art have such a special appeal to the Japanese?

It is said that Japanese people like human drama with laughter and tears. We are very sentimental. We like the sentimentality in his films. Also many Japanese people consider him as kind of “philosopher.” Almost all Japanese know the famous line in Limelight: “All it needs is courage, imagination and a little dough.” To be honest, I do not like the way the Japanese view Chaplin. There is, for sure, something sentimental in his films, but we can see the cruelty of humans there, too. However, we tend to neglect such aspects.

Charlie Chaplin with the mayor of Tokyo during his 1932 visit of JapanAnyway, Chaplin is still extremely popular. We have a 12-year-old girl who is a member and she nicknames herself Edna. I appeared on an educational TV program on Chaplin every Tuesday last June, and my book for Chaplin beginners has sold 50,000 copies. I get at least one phone call every other day from a TV station saying, “We are planning to make a new program on Chaplin” or “We are making a quiz show. Can you please tell me how many shrimp tempuras Chaplin ate when he visited Japan?” I supervised the Chaplin DVD box set which cost 400 dollars, and 7,000 sets sold in just one week! –while the Keaton box sets have sold only 400 copies. Sadly, Keaton is forgotten. I once asked my students who were the three great comedians. Everybody could answer Chaplin, but I have never met someone who can name the other two. Why is Chaplin so popular? –I do not know, but he is popular!

Can you talk about the second Chaplin conference in Kyoto in March 2007? How did it differ from last year’s conference?

The main theme of the conference was “Chaplin and War.” Chaplin was involved in the First World War, the Second World War and the Cold War. And now The Great Dictator has become a revival hit in the era of the Iraq war. Thinking about Chaplin and war teaches many things to us living in this world of confusion.

We had an exhibition of 90 pieces of the production designs of Modern Times, The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux in the David Robison collection, which were shown in public for the first time, and precious materials such as the draft of the last speech of The Great Dictator which was displayed thanks to Kate Guyonvarch and Cecilia Cenciarelli.

Ichikawa Somegoro, Charles Sistovaris and Ono HiroyukiWe had many guests including Charles (Charly) Sistovaris, the grandson of the comedian, and the most poplar kabuki actor, Ichikawa Somegoro the 7th. Mr. Ichikawa and I are planning to revive the kabuki version of City Lights. I know Charly has starred in the Bejart’s Ballet, so here ballet met kabuki through love for Chaplin! Also, Chaplin saw Nakamura Kichiemon the First, the famous kabuki actor, at the dressing room of the Kabukiza Theatre in 1932. Mr. Ichikawa is the great grandson of Nakamura. It was very moving that the grandson of the comedian and the great grandson of the kabuki actor met after 75 years.

We also held the first Kyoto Silent Film Festival with the help of Davide Pozzi at Bologna and Tochigi Akira at the National Film Centre. Tim Brock conducted Shoulder Arms. The cherry blossom season in Kyoto was the Chaplin season this year!What other Chaplin projects are you currently working on?

I have just finished my new book on the Chaplin Mutual out-takes, in which I described the contents of every shot. Then the exhibition from last year’s conference, “Chaplin and Japan-the Kono Toraichi exhibition” will tour a few cities in Japan. The exhibition was well received in Sacile last year, so I hope we can do it in other countries. Then I will supervise the new special TV program on Chaplin and Kono, I will write a new book on Kono, a revival of the kabuki version of City Lights, as I mentioned, and then the conference next year and many more.

Back row from right to left: David Robinson, Kate Guyonvarch, Tim Brock, Cecilia Cenciarelli, et al.

And, before we go, dear readers, Dr. Ono would like your input on next year’s conference theme. He has suggested the following as possibilities: Chaplin and music, Chaplin and America, Chaplin and his roots, or Chaplin and technology. Do you like any of these or do you have an idea of your own? Please send us a message!



  1. I have been trying without success to send an email to Dr. Ono Hiroyuki regarding material in the Kono Toraichi archive relating to Chaplin, Kono and Dr Cecil Reynolds. Can you please advise me of Dr Hiruyuki’s correct email address. Best regards, Nick Brown

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