At her interview at this year’s G-Fest, actress Megumi Odaka was presented with a question which always seems to turn up whenever a former kaiju eiga performer speaks before a live audience: Would you ever want to be in another Godzilla movie? And, in what also seems to be tradition with such Q&As, Odaka answered by turning toward the audience and exclaiming—in English—two words: “Of course!” The response throughout the ballroom was unanimous applause, and I was right there with the audience, pounding the palms of my hands together with great vigor. Though I get the feeling my enthusiasm was unlike most everyone else’s in that it was tinted with bittersweet hope. Hope this formerly omnipresent actress would one day be blessed with an opportunity to show fans what she can really do. An opportunity she never had working in the Godzilla series.

As a Godzilla fan growing up in the early 2000s, Megumi Odaka and her character of the psychic girl Miki Saegusa were ubiquitous elements in my movie-going youth; and to this day, she remains one of the faces I immediately think of when contemplating post-Showa talent in this long-running franchise. I’m certainly more inclined to salute her over the vast majority of her contemporaries. Looking back on the problematic Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), Odaka is pretty much the only cast member under the age of 40 in that film who leaves any impression on me whatsoever. While her early performances tended to be nondescript and even wooden at times, she became increasingly expressive as she neared the end of her film career, more comfortable and natural before the camera; and by the time we reached her 1995 swan song, she was genuinely good. (Here was an actress who grew as she went.)

On the other hand, good performances frequently appear in movies unworthy of them. And just as my feelings for most of the Heisei movies have diminished a bit over the years, so has my enthusiasm for the character this actress is associated with. I like Megumi Odaka, but with all due respect, it’s probably not unfair to speculate the reason she remains a name with fans all these years later is simply because she played the same character six times in a row—and not because of anything said character accomplished in any of those movies. In describing Miki Saegusa, I’m tempted to conjure up two words: lost potential.

 

Godzilla vs. Biollante

Thinning Simplicity

After introducing Miki Saegusa in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), writer/director Kazuki Omori charged his new character with the task of alerting everyone (including the audience) when something eerie was afoot: when a spiritual voice was in the “air,” when a voracious plant-monster hybrid was in the process of materializing, when Godzilla was about to poke his head out of the ocean.

Though it would develop into a problem later on, this simplistic approach wasn’t a major issue in the beginning. By initially presenting limited insight into Miki and what she’s capable of, Omori adds an extra layer of mystery and unpredictability to his film—which is fine, as the narrative’s told primarily from the perspective of the non-psychic characters who, very often, have to try and guess what the young woman might be thinking and, more importantly, what she might be sensing. This comes through especially well in scenes such as: Miki stepping out into the night after a heavy rainstorm, clearly troubled by something beyond our perception, not uttering a word as she races toward the coast; the other characters, completely unaware of what’s about to happen, follow; Miki comes to a stop in a grassy field, glances upward, and the audience joins hte cast in watching Biollante’s particles come down from the heavens. There are other captivating bits heavy on visuals, such as Miki using her ESP in an attempt to delay Godzilla’s next attack, only to collapse from exhaustion, the monster’s advance unhalted. Little moments like these go a long way, and though Miki never alters the film’s outcome, she contributes to the eerie atmosphere imbuing this picture. Omori certainly could’ve gone the distance and rendered a more three-dimensional person, but his use of the psychic girl works well enough the first time around and does not detract from the experience of watching the movie.

In Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), also written and directed by Omori, the mystery element is de-emphasized, and Miki becomes a loquacious, communicable team member…and in the process starts exhibiting the very plethora of problems that will ultimately diminish her from here on out. In bringing back a character whose initial appeal revolved around behavior and ability, it was pretty much essential on the part of the filmmakers to take the next step. Regardless of whether Miki remains abstruse or becomes more “sociable,” the ideal script would provide her with new challenges, expand on what she’s capable of, and thereby make her more interesting. Alas, that is not what happens in this film. Instead, Omori channels most of his energy into his jarring mess of a plot and his admittedly colorful new characters, all while relegating Miki to her previous assignment of simply voicing an alarm now and then. Even though she joins the mission to remove Godzilla from history, her participation amounts to merely going along for the ride. Her ESP, her one quality distinguishing her from everyone else, doesn’t even come into play outside of a throwaway line confirming the Lagos Island dinosaur will one day become Godzilla. (As if anyone needed her to deduce that….)

Omori abdicated the director’s chair for Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), staying on only as screenwriter, and proceeded to render his original creation even more superfluous. Minus a tiny iota of a scene of Miki helping locate the Cosmos in Tokyo, the character maintains her status as a one-tricky pony. “Godzilla’s coming.” Cut to Godzilla stomping out of Mt. Fuji. Of all Miki Saegusa’s appearances, this is the most vapid and unimpressionable.

 

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II

The Not-So-Dramatic Turn

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (1993), penned by new screenwriter Wataru Mimura, marks a transition point and briefly hints that Miki might be destined for better things. The first half of the picture showcases nothing especially new. In terms of of characterization and behavior, we get more of the same: a look of concern crosses her face, the camera gets up close, she announces Godzilla’s arrival. Rinse and repeat.

In the picture’s second half, however, Miki begins experiencing a change of heart on whether man should continue to wage war with Godzilla. From here we get the first glimpses of her sympathizing with the monsters, which will ultimately define her character from this point forward. The reason for her change of heart we are told—rather than shown—is Baby Godzilla: an herbivorous relative of the King of the Monsters whose egg was discovered on the remote Adonoa Island and flown back to Japan. When the egg hatches in an observation laboratory, the young dinosaur mistakenly identifies the first creature it came in contact with (in this case, a human whose voice it’d previously heard) for its mother, thereby opening an emotional bridge between the monsters and humankind. Also to Mimura’s credit, he incorporates Miki into the plot in a much more proactive way than anything Omori had ever thought of. This time, the psychic girl’s presence actually has some moderate influence on the story. She plays a crucial role in the mission of destroying Godzilla’s second brain and without Miki, Baby Godzilla wouldn’t have gone into the sea with Godzilla after the final battle. So on that level, Mimura should be applauded for taking a character who’d previously been relegated to just standing around and giving her some small role in the way the story unfolds.

On the debit side, these admittedly clever ideas nevertheless come up short, failing to manifest on the screen in a particularly engaging manner. The big mistake, especially with context kept in mind, was preserving Miki’s stature as a secondary character rather than more logically advancing her to the role of female lead. Considering this is the film where she starts sympathizing with the monsters and considering Baby Godzilla serves as the pivot upon which the story turns, it would’ve only made sense for Miki to assume the dramatic lead. Have Miki travel to Adonoa Island and discover the egg. Write the script so that Miki’s voice is the voice Baby Godzilla hears. Structure it so Miki is present when the egg breaks open. Allow Miki to develop parental feelings for the infant reptile. Show an on-screen bondage developing between Miki and Baby Godzilla, and thus exhibit why she no longer wishes to fight Godzilla. All of this would’ve resulted in a more emotional denouement when Miki sends Baby away.

But, no. Instead, Baby becomes attached to a scientist’s assistant named Azusa (Ryoko Sano), someone who never turns up again in the remainder of the Heisei series; and when Miki uses her telepathy to convince Baby to leave with Godzilla, it’s at the request of Azusa, not her own discretion.

In a scene deleted from the final cut, Miki visited Baby Godzilla’s pen, the dinosaur playfully using its tail to dishevel her hair. I imagine the scene was removed for the sake of pacing, but even had it remained, it would’ve been too little too late in making us care about the “relationship” between these two. As with many things in Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II, there’s something wonderful struggling to claw its way out of some rough ideas here, but the character of Miki Saegusa, four movies in, remains clenched in the fists of unrealized potential.

 

Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla

Semi-Advancement

In 1994’s Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, written by Hiroshi Kashiwabara, Miki’s finally promoted to lead, with mixed results. To begin on a positive note, Kashiwabara starts the film off by placing Miki appropriately at center stage. As the picture opens, Miki’s approached by members of G-Force who have developed a strategy with the potential of controlling Godzilla’s mind (via implanting a special transmitting into the back of the monster’s neck and feeding him commands via telepathy). None of the other psychics are strong enough to even attempt the mission; Miki’s the only one who might be able to pull it off; but she’s leery about doing so, given the events of the last film. However, most people in Japan still want to see Godzilla dead, and unless the King of the Monsters can be contained, G-Force will continue developing new weapons and, just maybe, succeed in killing him. On top of that, if Miki refuses to take part in the telepathy mission, the team will resort to recruiting one of the other psychics, unprepared as they are. If she abstains, someone—human or monster—will suffer. Right from the start, Miki’s placed in a dramatic position, pressed with making a tough choice.

This thread continues when the Cosmos inform Miki a violent space monster is en route to Earth and that nothing will be able to stop it if Godzilla’s killed. (Which might happen if she doesn’t go along with G-Force’s plan.) Now the existence of the planet is in jeopardy. Backing into a metaphorical corner, Miki reluctantly decides between the lesser of two evils, agreeing to attempt to control the creature she’s come to respect. For all the awkward things that exist within the screenplay of Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Kashiwabara scores a right note in finding a role for for the picture’s lead that 1) makes sense given her history 2) catapults her to the core of the narrative.

That is, until the subplot of telepathically manipulating Godzilla abruptly vanishes halfway in.

The filmmakers make up for this somewhat by expanding on Miki’s powers. In this case, she discovers how to use telekinesis to levitate objects, which comes in handy when aiding her human companions at two points in the film. (A nice change of pace from simply touching her temple and declaring a monster’s on its way.) Also added is a romance between Miki and a G-Force soldier (Jun Hashizume) which doesn’t so much influence the plot as it feeds into the picture’s peculiar Make Love, Not War theme. But for all the positives implemented here, so much more still could’ve been done to flesh out Miki and her role within the Heisei universe. Dropping her key narrative purpose halfway in also delivers a heavy blow to the story.

Failing to follow up on that also opens the window for one of the most baffling lines of dialogue in the history of the franchise. After SpaceGodzilla has been defeated (thanks to the efforts of Godzilla and the MOGUERA crew), the Cosmos reappear before Miki and thank her for “saving the planet,” even though her participation in the climax consisted entirely of watching from a distance and using telekinesis to free Yuki (Akira Emoto) from a hatch door closed around his foot. Since she herself faced no peril whatsoever, even the most undiscerning audience member is bound to scratch their head at this line and beg the obvious question: How did she save the planet?

Swinging back to the positive side of things, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla is a step up in the sense that it features the first truly energized performance Megumi Odaka has given thus far. I know not what changed between movies, but I suspect it might have something to do with her collaborators. Kazuki Omori and Takao Okawara (director Godzilla vs. Mothra and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II) are hit-and-miss when it comes to directing actors; so in regards to the 1994 film, it might’ve been that the less experienced Kensho Yamashita was nonetheless more conscious of what it takes to evoke a strong performance from his cast. At the aforementioned G-Fest panel, Odaka revealed that while filming the sunset-staged quarrel in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, she and co-star Jun Hashizume were continually failing to deliver a mood that matched the director’s expectations. To solve the problem, Yamashita brought in a large speaker and played a fight song to rev up the tension until the performers reached an intensity he was satisfied with. Perhaps that cleverness filtered throughout the entire production; some directors know how to work with actors better than others. Perhaps there were other factors involved: Odaka might’ve garnered some tips from co-star Akira Emoto, one of Japan’s finest acting talents. But whatever the reason, Odaka is in much finer form here than she had been previous; and moving forward, she would only get better.

 

Godzilla vs. Destoroyah

The Disappointing Sendoff

Odaka cites Godzilla vs. Destoroyah as the film containing her best genre performance, and she is absolutely correct in doing so. Of her six times playing Miki Saegusa, this exhibits the most convincing and well-rounded piece of acting by her. She’s up to the task, even if the people behind the typewriter are not.

Returning screenwriter Kazuki Omori spits up a number of interesting ideas and does little to nothing with most of them. Godzilla Junior has apparently turned into a killer, slaughtering whales by the dozen and leaving their bloodied carcasses in his wake. The cute plant-eating critter which helped Miki realized humanity can co-exist with the monsters is now dangerous. Or so we’re told in a very brief throwaway scene that could’ve easily been axed with no indication it had even been there in the first place. Once again, we’re treated to an admittedly clever idea that just never fleshes out into a satisfying subplot: there are no scenes of Miki trying to justify keeping the (apparently) dangerous Junior alive, for instance. What if the military saw the results of Junior’s handiwork, leaped to the assumption that he would target humans next, and set out to destroy him? How would Miki dissuade them? How would her personal history with the creature be interwoven into the story? Alas, Junior’s mean streak vanishes as quickly as it appeared and the next time we see him,  he’s as harmless and peaceful as ever, strolling past a beach full of people, on his way back to Adonoa Island. What could’ve been genuinely intense drama actively utilizing the past history of two recurring characters is instead swept under the proverbial rug.

But the criminal mistake—the most egregious bit of missed potential in this character’s six-part spectrum—is, without a doubt: introducing the concept of the psychic girl losing her powers and squandering it on a couple lines of dialogue. Miki’s steadily being deprived of what was, frankly, her only standout trait from the beginning; and the filmmakers startlingly, infuriatingly, do nothing with it. Did it ever occur to Omori to write a scenario in which we see Miki’s slackening extrasensory abilities? Not just one or two moments where she’s flying in a helicopter, touching her forehead, and Junior fails to appear? How about a scene where she tries to do something with her mind, fails, and realizes, along with audience, that her gift’s gone forever? (Imagine what Megumi Odaka could’ve done enacting such a revelation!) How about comparing her situation to that of Meru Ozawa (Sayaka Osawa), a fellow psychic who actually wants to lose her powers and lead a normal life? Speaking of which, what has not leading a normal life meant to Miki after all these years? What has she lost? What has she gained? Ever since Miki’s induction, there have been other psychics (adults as well as children) in the background; what does it mean to them? All of these intriguing ideas present themselves and then vanish into the woodwork mere minutes later, and the film suffers as a result.

The one dramatically effective element to arise from all this is Miki’s diverting Junior’s course toward Destoroyah, resulting in the young monster’s demise. The same person who swore to protect the monsters has indirectly caused the death of one. If only this had been the consequence of some lengthy beforehand tension, as expounded on above. Megumi Odaka’s performance is solid from start to finish, but the actress is not helped along to true greatness due to the severe limitations of the script.

And with that, Miki Saegusa—ever promising, every tingling with potential—vanishes into the annals of the genre with a well-acted whimper.

 

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe

Same Concept, Superior Execution

In examining the Heisei series, I am forced to conclude Miki Saegusa was a prime example of a missed opportunity: an admittedly likable character who was never utilized to a particularly compelling degree. And in comparing her part in the later Heisei movies to something similar from a superior product, I cannot help but salute Shusuke Kaneko‘s magnificent Gamera trilogy from 1995-1999. The qualitative difference is astonishing. Each film in this trio featured one or more characters with extrasensory powers as well as the concept of humans linked to monsters—except, unlike the makers of the ’90s Godzilla movies, Kaneko seized hold of the idea with both hands and ran with it.

I could examine the whole trilogy in making my point, but for the sake of discussion, let’s dissect just the first film, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995). Early on, we’re introduced to Asagi Kusanagi (wonderfully acted by Ayako Fujitani). In doing so, Kaneko inaugurates his psychic character in an infinitely more imaginative way than Omori ever did. Rather than introducing her within some kind of established universe (with voiceover narrative clarifying who and what she is), the director shows us a seemingly ordinary teenager with an ordinary life: we see fleeting glimpses of her life at home and at school. Things take a turn for the extraordinary when her scientist father investigates a drifting atoll (which later turns out to be Gamera); this leads to her obtaining one of the comma-shaped beads littered on the rock’s surface; this leads to the deduction that the beads are made of material produced by a long-gone civilization; this leads to Asagi becoming psychically linked to Gamera, The audience learns, right alongside the character herself, that a seemingly normal teenager is destined for something special. An infinitely more intoxicating chain of events than the Toho method of: This is Miki, she has ESP.

In a somewhat similar vein to Miki, Asagai follows Gamera around. But her following him amounts to more than determining his destination. (The scenes of her doing so also stand superior entertainment-wise, as she often has to improvise on how to keep up with him; it’s not until the very end that she’s granted one of those JSDF helicopters Miki had at her disposal.) During the Mt. Fuji scene, Gamera’s arm is sliced wide open by Gyaos’ beam—and blood simultaneously pours down Asagi’s arm. Previously, we’d seen signs of wounds on Asagi’s wrists (following Gamera suffering a similar injury), and now we have an explanation. The filmmakers deliver this on a purely visual level, which makes it all the more fun. And to render an already interesting dynamic even more interesting, they introduce Asagi’s ability to channel some of her own energy to Gamera, allowing him to escape. Asagai doesn’t simply stand off to the side during the action; her being there influences the outcome! How many times can such a compliment be paid to Miki? Remove Miki Saegusa from her movies and almost none of them change. Remove Asagi Kusanagi from Gamera: Guardian of the Universe and the story turns out drastically different.

Again, one could discuss the subsequent two chapters in the trilogy, but that first movie, by itself, even when examining one particular element, perfectly demonstrates how much better the Gamera pictures of the 1990s were compared to their Godzilla counterparts. Shusuke Kaneko and screenwriter Kazunori Ito took the same idea—a psychic person who can feel the monsters—and went much further with it in one movie than Toho managed six times out.

 

Megumi Odaka

The moment in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah that made me realize just how much Megumi Odaka had grown as an actress was her reaction to being told Junior’s course would be changed with or without her assistance. In one of their better visual choices, Takao Okawara and cinematographer Yoshinori Sekiguchi maintain a long shot on Miki as Meru vanishes through a door in the background. The shot remains locked down as Miki silently decides what to do, the wheels in her head visibly turning, making another “lesser of two evils” decision, before quickly wheeling around and following her companion. Her expression reads a consummate blend of frustration and regret. This was the final film in Odaka’s acting career (though she did continue to perform on the stage, later transitioning into an assortment of other jobs in other industries) and it’s somewhat saddening to think her time in movies stopped just when she seemed to be getting a firm grip on her craft. I hope someone involved in the Godzilla franchise is at least aware of her willingness to participate in future entries. With good fortune, should her wish to return to the silver screen manifest into reality, the studio will uphold their end of the bargain by providing her with a script worthy of her talent.

Despite all the dramatic shortcomings and missed opportunities, would I be interested in seeing the return of Miki Saegusa?

To quote Miss Odaka: “Of course!”

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