Comments from Pascal Borno, Anita First, Robert M. Jones, Richard Milnes, Doug Schwalbe, Dom Serafini, and Blair Westlake.
From Dom Serafini, VideoAge. “While at MIPCOM a few years back, Tetsu Uemura invited me to lunch to talk about… sake. Before that, the only time he wanted to talk to me — about television — was when Tohokushinsha Film Corporation (TFC), the group founded by his late father, Banjiro, entered the short-lived 3D-TV business .
Tetsu (pictured* above holding a photo of his late father) was not too keen to talk shop with a journalist, but not shy about his key interests: his father, 3D-TV, and sake. He explained that the sake of ‘the Kimura family, [which] is distantly related to my family, has a small brewery with a 400-year history that produces premium sake by hand in a small quantity following the traditional technique.’ The brewery became a TFC group company 24 years ago. The following Christmas he sent me bottles of different types of Kimura sake.
Tetsu started at TFC in 1988 and became president 22 years later. Prior to his untimely passing at the age of 58 on April 21, 2020, he took the title of the company’s Executive Principal, while his brother-in-law, Kiyotaka Ninomiya, took on the firm’s day-to-day responsibilities.
Tetsu liked to talk about his father, Banji. The younger Uemura often spoke of the time when, in 1975, his mother and father took a 13-year-old Tetsu to visit their friend, Bruce Gordon, in Sydney, Australia, “and left me there for … six years!” (He attended school there for a time.) Recalled Gordon: “Of course he had a good Aussie accent!”
But perhaps to make sure the young Uemura would also speak perfect ‘American,’ his father sent him first to school in New York City and, later, to attend Occidental College, a private, co-educational liberal arts college located in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles (which former U.S. president Barack Obama also briefly attended).”
From Pascal Borno, president, Angel Oak Films. “I first met Tetsu in the mid-80s when he was still at the university and came to stay with myself and Christian Solomon at a condo I shared with him that was owned by his parents, Michael and Luciana Solomon.
I was working at New World at the time and we were in business with Tohokushinsha and I was dealing regularly with Banjiro and [TFC executive] Nakamura. I was constantly traveling to Tokyo throughout the 90s and Tetsu always came to pick me up upon my arrival at the airport to take me to dinner. He was always giving me advice on how to do business with the Japanese and made me eat uni for the first time. He was gentle and kind. I have had a few friends catch the coronavirus, but they all survived. Tetsu is the first friend of mine to die of it. He was a good man and will be missed by all of us.”
From Anita First, entertainment attorney and former COO of World International Network (WIN). “There was a memorial service for Larry Gershman in October of last year. Tetsu flew all the way from Japan for the service. It was the only reason for his trip. His dad had just passed a few weeks earlier.
I got to spend some time with him at the reception after the service, and he was thoughtful and lively and optimistic. I told him that I was sure that Larry felt very grateful that he had made the trip in Larry’s honor and memory. He said it was ‘not a big deal’ and that he was happy to do it.
Loyalty and respect — very impressive and very moving. We reminisced about the WIN days and the times before that when TFC bought programming from Larry when he ran international distribution at MGM and at Viacom before that.
Tetsu was a hard-working guy who was gentle, intelligent, and quiet. He stood in the massive shadow of his father with little complaint and with humility and always with a solid purpose to move deals forward and establish his own place and relationships.”
From Robert M. Jones, president – IPA (Asia Pacific). “I first met Banjiro and Tetsu in 1979 when I was working out of my one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo, which was about 600 square feet [56 square meters] in Nishi Azubu. It was ground zero in the ‘Go Go 80s’ at the start of the VHS glory days, a time when Tetsu and his dad, along with Nakamura-san, came to visit my apartment.
We had VHS 300 video cassette players tied together making copies off one tiny U-Matic machine. We were making Japanese subtitles with a hand-held label-maker you use to make badges at Taco Bell, and we were pumping out 1,000 VHS copies a day and selling them outside the theaters in the Ginza like hot cakes! Both of them walked into my candy store with eyes wide open in amazement at what we were doing.
Banjiro grabbed Tetsu and said, ‘My son, this is the future of digital to home delivery.’
In the end, TFC became one of our exclusive distributors, along with JVC, FUNAI, Matsushita, and Marubeni. Banjiro and Tetsu were always excited about the future of digital delivery in Japan.
At the time, Tetsu was trying to resist the authority of his dad, letting me know how much he didn’t want to emulate Banjiro’s demanding style of running the company. But in the end dad taught him well and gave him the tools and talent to run the company successfully in Japan.
Tetsu always mentioned to me how much he liked speaking English while his dad was in the same meeting so that he could show his dad what a great son he had.”
From Richard Milnes, former vp of Warner Bros. International U.K. “On December 17, I had lunch with Tetsu in London. He was his usual full-of-life, amusing, talkative self. We didn’t stop for well on three hours!
I met Banji at Film House in Wardour Street back in 1969 and Tetsu in New York City in 1982. Was extremely privileged to have been invited to Banji’s home up on Mullholland Drive [in L.A.] on the occasion of his 60th birthday and that evening we listened to ‘our’ favorite singer Nat King Cole singing all his songs in Spanish!”
From Doug Schwalbe, svp, Co-Production, DreamWorks Animation Television.
“Tetsu was one of my dearest friends for over 30 years. His loyalty and devotion were unmatched. He flew in from Tokyo to attend Tony Lynn’s wedding and sadly [many years later], Tony’s funeral, only to fly back the next day [to Japan, on both occasions]. His friendship meant the world to Tony who had a picture of me and Tetsu on his dressing room table.
I would love to have a moment at MIPCOM (if there is a MIPCOM) or whenever we next gather to remember him and raise a glass in his name.”
From Blair Westlake, principal in the media consulting firm Media Squareup.
“I will always remember the Uemuras’ graciousness from something that happened 20 years ago this September.
I was running Pay-Television for Universal. We were partners in UIP Pay with MGM and Paramount. One of my peers (at a partner company) said something while we were negotiating a transaction that (understandably) deeply offended Banji and Tetsu.
I was asked/designated to fly to Tokyo to have dinner with the two of them — to extend the olive branch — to apologize, on behalf of the three companies.
After what started as a ‘chilly’ reception, Banji insisted we leave the restaurant and go to his home to celebrate the deal with champagne and a handshake. All hard feelings had been mended and we moved on, never to look back. They were just that way.”
*Photo courtesy of Armando Nuñez, chairman, Global Distribution Group, ViacomCBS