BECOMING MIKI SAEGUSA! Godzilla Series Star Megumi Odaka on Her Early Life and Start at Toho!

Megumi Odaka in July 2020. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Megumi Odaka is a Japanese actress who accomplished a remarkable and unprecedented feat — she starred in six consecutive Godzilla movies, playing the same character in each film. That character, the young psychic Miki Saegusa, would go on to become one of the series’ most iconic figures. Ms. Odaka’s first encounter with Godzilla happened in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), and she would make her final appearance in the series with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995). But what led to the role of Miki Saegusa in the first place? What about her role as Akeno the blind girl in Kon Ichikawa’s all-star fantasy Princess from the Moon (1987)? And how did Ms. Odaka join Toho? These are the questions addressed in this August 2021 interview with Megumi Odaka, conducted by Brett Homenick, and translated by Eri Hibino and Mao Watanabe.

Brett Homenick: Please talk about your early life. What were your hobbies?

Megumi Odaka: When I was two or three, I took a singing lesson, but I quit very soon [after that]. I entered kindergarten at age three and then started to learn classical ballet at four. Around the same time, I took an Electone class, which I continued until I graduated from my elementary school.

I played sports for my extracurricular activities at my junior high school. In my twenties, I did classical ballet again. As my grandmother was a shamisen teacher, I learned to play a few pieces of music on the shamisen during my teens.

I ran across Brett once [on a train platform] when I was going to my classical guitar class. But I quit shortly thereafter.

I used to learn the ukulele as a fifth-grader but stopped at one point in time. Since my mother plays the ukulele in a band, I fell in love with the instrument, so I taught it to myself from a book. So I learned to play several ukulele songs of the Japanese actor Yuzo Kayama, even though those songs were not exactly Hawaiian.

Since the start of the national state of emergency [due to the coronavirus pandemic], I’ve refrained from doing things that are too loud. So today I may not be able to find right chords even if I read the scores. I want to start playing again one day, but to do so I must rent a studio or go out to take lessons. So, as of this August [2021], I do not actively participate in any hobbies.

I used to take lessons for a lot of different things. When I was in elementary school, I would practice very hard during my summer holidays to prepare for annual recitals. I could not go to the beach, even though I lived in a beach area called Shonan. I was not allowed to get suntan because I danced classical ballet onstage and had to put white foundation on my face. I had to endure such strict training when I was little.

When I was in the first grade of elementary school, an essay that I wrote in my class was published in the newspaper. I think it was the Mainichi Shimbun. The essay was about my family. I wrote about my mother and some nice ornaments that she created when she wasn’t busy with her chores, such as dried flowers and paper flowers.

When my father came back home at night, he would say to her, “Don’t waste your time on such hobbies. Make my supper now.” My father had an irregular work schedule, so he was not able to come back home at the same time every night. So I wrote about how sad I felt about my mother when I saw her get scolded by my father.

The essay appeared in the newspaper with my photo. Thanks to that experience, probably, my elementary school days were very peaceful. I mean, no matter how mischievous I may have been at times, I was able to get around somehow. Like, “That child is being so mischievous now, but she must be a good girl, really,” was how grownups would think of me.

At home, my parents were so strict that they sometimes even hit me with their fists. On the other hand, all my neighbors, like the man running a cigarette shop and vendors selling fish and vegetables, were nice to me.

I have a little sister. We had a good relationship and went to lessons together.

There was a garden around my house. I usually do not talk about this in interviews in Japanese, but I can talk about it in this interview in English. My grandfather was a doctor, and our family inherited his house. It had a garden and two ponds. There were carp in the ponds. I would find frog eggs wrapped around the rocks. I put those frog eggs in a basin to see them hatch, turn into tadpoles, and grow into frogs.

There was a plum tree, so I went up to the roof and picked plums. I used a butterfly net to catch cicadas on the trees in the garden. I remember inviting my friends to play with me in the garden, which I loved to do as much as playing with them away from my home.

My grandfather died when I was three. So, in my memory, my family could not afford a lavish lifestyle. We were frugal. I was happy simply by playing in our garden. I never played house. My parents never bought me toys. My Christmas gifts from Santa Claus were things like basketballs and volleyballs that I had to devise ways to play with.

I don’t think I have ever talked about this in any interview.

All these experiences led me to do many different things later in my life. People at  my agency knew these stories, as I talked about my childhood during my audition.

That was my childhood. I was a cheerful and very talkative child. I talked too much in class, so my teacher made me stand in the corridor outside classroom as punishment.

I lived at the end of a driveway that led to the center of a local shopping arcade. I was a child always running around that area. I loved running and also playing dodgeball.

At my kindergarten, my friends and I pretended to be Lupin the Third characters. I was made to play Mineko Fuji. I had never watched Lupin the Third, so I did not know what we were doing. But I was asked just to be there. So I kept running to catch up with my friends. I ran and ran until I was exhausted. I would fall into bed afterwards.

BH: Next, let’s talk about the Toho Cinderella [Audition]. How did you find out about the Toho Cinderella [Audition]? Please discuss what happened.

MO: My aunt [Nikkatsu actress Mayumi Shimizu] and uncle [Nikkatsu actor Yuji Odaka] found a 30×5-centimeter ad in the newspaper seeking applicants for the Second Toho Cinderella [Audition]. I cannot remember if they brought the article to me or if I saw it at their place. I was 14 [and] in my second year of junior high school. I had other things I dreamed to do. However, they somehow convinced me that I would be the one to win the contest. So, without thinking much about it, I went to the audition. That was how it all began.

Nikkatsu actress Mayumi Shimizu, the aunt of Megumi Odaka, in September 2018. Photo © Brett Homenick.

My aunt and uncle used to be actors a long time ago. They were semi-retired then and worked only occasionally. My uncle had a medical history, and my aunt had to take care of him. They lived a quiet life together with a housemaid. Their house commanded an ocean view. I went to see them often in those days.

BH: Could you please talk about the contest?

MO: It was a national contest. I first went to the Kanto regional contest held at the Toho head office in Hibiya. There were many girls around my age together with their parents. But my mother was working at the time, so I went there with my aunt. I was so nervous that I often went to the restroom.

The first test was on singing skills. When I was called, I was instructed to start singing impromptu over the microphone since there would be no prelude to be played by the pianist.

As I was told, I started singing right away. Then I noticed that the pianist was not accompanying [my singing]. I turned around and found myself in the middle of everyone’s laughter. I started laughing, too. On my second try, now with the cadence being counted aloud by the pianist, I was able to sing as I was supposed to.

Thanks to that big laugh at the start, I started to get relaxed and enjoy myself. The question-and-answer session afterwards went smoothly. It seemed I left the judges with a strong impression.

There is a trivial story that I have never shared with anybody to this date. I had to submit my head-and-shoulder shots for the initial screening. I mailed the biggest size possible, like 30×30 centimeters, while the photo size was designated to be cabinet card [about 108×165 millimeters] or larger. My outsize photos were apparently so eye-catching that the secretaries at Toho were guessing that I would be the winner. I heard this anecdote maybe six months or so after I joined Toho.

After winning the final contest, I went back home. It took about two hours by taxi. My aunt said, “You’ve got a lifetime job,” which was so hard to believe. I was in a state of shock for the following few days. I was only 14 years old. I wasn’t even in high school or university. I was not even searching for a job. So what the heck does it mean that I’ve got a job for the rest of my life?

I was happy, too. I was announced as the Grand Prix winner and surrounded by press, hearing the shutters of cameras. It was so cool to be in the same photos with the absolutely beautiful Yasuko Sawaguchi.

BH: How did you get cast in Princess from the Moon (1987)? Please talk about getting cast in this movie. 

MO: The newspaper advertisement had already announced that the Grand Prix winner would debut and be cast in Princess from the Moon.

BH: What can you tell us about director Kon Ichikawa?

MO: I had watched some of his films like Crane (1988) and Actress (1987), starring Sayuri Yoshinaga. I knew he was called a master of cinema, which made me feel butterflies. I remember that he was a chain-smoker. I always saw a cigarette wavering constantly in a gap between his front teeth. He was not intimidating. The staff around him were all very experienced. I had been told that director Ichikawa would not shoot a film unless he had the next production set in stone.

In the movie, I played a blind girl whose eyes were nevertheless open. The biggest challenge for me was when I had to turn around. Behind me, there were three or four very bright lights emitting from huge instruments, like 80 centimeters each. When a close-up shot was filmed, I was instructed never to move my pupils.

I tried hard but could not keep my eyeballs from reacting to the lights. It took numerous takes while I was constantly told not to blink. It was really disappointing that I had to make so many mistakes as a result. That incident made me realize how hard it is to be an actor.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Generally, with director Ichikawa, how would he direct you? What kind of advice or direction did he give you?

MO: There was no direction from him. It was all up to me.

BH: Do you have any Toshiro Mifune stories?

MO: When I went to the film studio in Kinuta with Toho’s vice president, he told me that we were going to greet my co-stars. First, I went to see a gentleman in a black T-shirt, sitting in a chair. I said, “My name is Odaka; it is very nice to meet you.” The same guy was there the next day, but I completely forgot that we had met. So I said again, “My name is Odaka; it is nice to meet you.”

On day three, I once again said to him, “Nice to meet you,” which obviously upset my agent. I was told that this was the third day in a row and asked if I knew who the man actually was. I answered that he must be a grip guy. The agent said, “What? He is the world-famous Mifune!”

I had never heard of any world-famous Mifune before, so a question mark hung over my head until the end of shooting.

I was 15 years old then, in the third year of junior high school. I had no idea how great the world-famous Mifune was. I was acting without being aware that I was actually co-starring with one of the greatest actors in the world.

BH: What were Yasuko Sawaguchi and Ayako Wakao like to work with?

MO: I never had any personal conversations with them at the studio. Ms. Sawaguchi played the protagonist, Princess Kaguya. She wore junihitoe, which means there were 12 kimono layered over her body. I do not remember exactly, but apparently her outfit weighed some tens of kilograms. Once she sat straight on her knees, she had to stay still for hours. Therefore, I felt reluctant to stay close to her. She was very beautiful. Very professional, too.

Ms. Wakao had a delicate and mysterious kind of beauty. I cannot find the right words, but maybe she can be compared to a fairy in a Japanese sense. The role she played was the mother, who believed that Princess Kaguya was the reincarnation of her deceased daughter Kaya. Ms. Wakao expressed some kind of beautiful motherhood. “Beautiful” may not be the right word, but I do not know how else to put it.

I could see her beauty, especially in the last scene. There was some nuance of frailty in her. When I watch the movie today, I see that Ms. Wakao manifested every aspect of femininity. I did not see that back then, but I do see it now. She is such a great actor who has left a legacy. She let the world know that there are so many facets of beauty in a woman.

BH: How did you get cast in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)? 

MO: On a much more recent occasion, Kazuki Omori, the director of Godzilla vs. Biollante, shared with me an apparent reason that I got cast in the movie. The blind girl whom I played in Princess from the Moon had special abilities, such as telling the name of a flower just by smelling it. So apparently somebody came up with the idea to cast me to play the role of a girl who has supernatural powers.

If you see me first in Princess from the Moon and then in Godzilla vs. Biollante afterwards, you will understand. There are some similarities between the two characters I played. Maybe I looked mysterious on the screen. I was in senior high school at the time of Biollante. I led a normal school life when I was not at work. I commuted to school from home. On the other hand, with the help of the staff and my co-stars, I endeavored not to look too ordinary at work.

That may be why I got cast, but, sorry, my memory is a bit blurred. I hope I can get this confirmed somehow.

Biollante is a creature that is the hybrid of a rose and the cells of Godzilla. But it was also crossed with the human cells of the character played by Yasuko Sawaguchi. At the end of the film, a picture of Yasuko Sawaguchi appears. Ms. Sawaguchi had also been cast in another Godzilla movie, the one right before Godzilla vs. Biollante. Her movie was shown in theaters when I was a sixth-grader in elementary school. It is possible that I got cast because I succeeded her as the Toho Cinderella during the second contest. That could be another reason.

BH: At the time you were cast in Biollante, had you seen a Godzilla movie?

MO: I did not see the Godzilla movies when they originally came out. When I got cast in Biollante, director Omori handed me a video of Firestarter (1984). That film was about a girl who possessed superpowers. I was told to study the movie to develop my character. I watched Godzilla movies a little after that, including the very first Godzilla movie.

Maybe I had seen the Godzilla movie made in 1984 that starred Ms. Sawaguchi before, but, well, it was more than 30 years ago. I should have confirmed and fact-checked before I came here today. Let me check on this later. Still, chances are that I had watched the Godzilla movie that was produced four or five years prior to Biollante.

Regarding Firestarter, which director Omori handed me to watch and study, the little girl in the movie causes a swirling fire when she is outraged. It was for me to learn to act bringing about a powerful force, one so powerful that you would have a headache.

Director Kazuki Omori with Megumi Odaka in October 2020. Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: In the beginning, what did you think of director Kazuki Omori?

MO: Yuki Saito is a famous Japanese actress-singer, as well as an idol. Before and around my time, director Omori had worked with this top entertainer on various movies for a long time. I had watched all of their movies. So it was such an honor for me to work with him.

Godzilla was staffed with very experienced tokusatsu professionals. I think the director was the youngest of all the crew. He is older now, but it was 30 years ago. And there were so many staff members who were senior to him. He was such a young and interesting film director.

I have a very slight memory that he showed me a storyboard and directed me how to act. I think it was director Omori.

There were directors, such as Omori, [Takao] Okawara, [Kensho] Yamashita, and [Koichi] Kawakita, who worked with me in the Godzilla series. It was only director Omori who shared with me a storyboard to give me directions.

BH: You acted a lot with Yoshiko Tanaka. What was she like?

MO: She was very kind. When I was in kindergarten, Yoshiko Tanaka was a member of the Candies, a very famous female idol trio in Japan. I admired her so much that I felt nervous.

Kunihiko Mitamura, a co-star [in Biollante], said to Ms. Tanaka during a break, “Hey, Su-chan, sing a Candies song.” Then she sang with the [dance] choreography. That was at 3:00 a.m. (laughs). She was so nice and entertaining.

BH: There were many interesting filming locations in Biollante, so do you have any memories of going on location and what it was like to go on location?

MO: The most memorable scene was when Godzilla and Miki Saegusa encounter each other through telepathy at a mock Kansai International Airport heliport.

The second most memorable one was the scene at Lake Ashi. The actual location was a pool built inside the Toho Kinuta studio. There was a scene where a 10-meter-long leaf [tentacle] of Biollante smashed into the surface of the lake, even though it really was a pool.

In the test shot, everyone was supposed to stand still. However, I recoiled about four steps backwards. I was surprised to see how scary it felt. I was the only one who moved, so everyone said, “Why did you move? You’re supposed to be the toughest person in this scene!” (laughs)

I got freaked out by the loud splash and stepped back. There was no other person who moved. I was almost running away! (laughs) I think I looked pretty funny. It was so scary to imagine how frightened I would feel if Godzilla came close to me.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: How long did it take you to film your scenes for Biollante?

MO: Three months.

BH: After Biollante, did you think you would return to the Godzilla series?

MO: I didn’t have a particular feeling about whether I might come back or not. I had my school life, as well as things like doing magazine interviews. I was an active singer, too. So, after the Godzilla premiere, I no longer thought much about it.

BH: Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) was next. What did you think about returning to the Godzilla series?

MO: I wore T-shirts and shorts when I appeared in Biollante. In the next movie, I had long hair. So, suddenly, I looked grown up. I wore earrings and suits, etc. I had never expected that the series would continue that long. As far as my outfit was concerned, all of a sudden, I looked like a career woman. I think it was only two years after the first one.

I don’t remember what kind of reaction I had when I was offered [the chance to] return to Godzilla films.


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