The highest goal and greatest privilege of fantastic cinema is to present the audience with wonderful sights that we have not seen. But there's a sneaky caveat to that: we all want imaginative genres to showcase one-of-a-kind new images that are the same one-of-a-kind new images that we already expect to see (e.g. Avatar There is a certain level of comfort demanded even from our madcap escapism, an anchor that ties it to our previous experiences and gives us something to use for context.

I might never have felt this insight so strongly as to share it with you if not for the only Godzilla-free Toho daikiju eiga from 1964, Dogora, which perfectly and absolutely violates that nice little rule I just made up. The daikaiju eiga is a rather formulaic genre, after all, no matter how amazing the new monster designs are or aren't, and how superficially unusual the first two acts are before they us usher into the requisite city-leveling. Not so with Dogora, easily the most off-kilter daikaiju eiga I've ever seen, beyond the weirdest extremes of the Godzilla franchise in the 1970s. It doesn't even take until the film's totally uncharacteristic third act to figure that out, either: by then, we've already had a good 55 minutes to come to grips with the unbelievably strange hybrid that the film is. Somehow, Toho executive Tanaka Tomoyuki, screenwriter Sekizawa Shinichi, and director Honda Ishirō decided that they'd be able to sell the world on the insertion of an already unusual kaiju into the plot of one of those globe-trotting jewel heist movies that were all the rage in the mid-'60s.

Things start off in good, mystery-thriller fashion, with a small glowing thing destroying a satellite in orbit, and an identical small glowing thing showing up in the middle of a diamond heist. The robbers - an internationally infamous band of crooks hunted by the police forces of multiple nations - aren't the only gem hunters, though: the glowing thing, whatever it is, takes the entire cache of diamonds before the thieves get there. This case ends up in the hands of Inspector Komei (Natsuki Yosuke), who eventually consults with crystal expert Dr. Munakata (Nakamura Nobuo), currently hard at work on perfecting a synthetic diamond. Given the rest of the evidence surrounding the crime scene - particularly the levitation of a truck filled with coal - Munakata has the rudiments of a theory: some kind of mutant cell created deep in space has entered Earth's atmosphere, hunting for carbon to absorb (okay, that's not the theory in its rawest form, but I'm skipping ahead). Diamonds and coal being among the densest carbon sources on the planet, they make for a natural food source, but the more it eats, the more the thing - dubbed "Dogora", apparently in between shots - grows, and the more it requires to sustain itself. Coal and diamonds being finite, Munakata is concerned that at some point, Dogora is going to set its sights on the many carbon-based beings alive on the planet.

Meanwhile, Komei's hunt for the thieves is severely complicated by the presence of an American, Mark Jackson (expatriated actor extraordinaire Robert Dunham, appearing under the stage name Dan Yuma), who seems to change his backstory every time somebody meets him: perhaps he's working with the diamond robbers, perhaps he's racing them for the same loot, perhaps he's one the side of the law. The only thing keeping Komei's frequent confusion and blundering from fatally damaging his investigation is that the gangsters, with the possible exception of the femme fatale Hamako (Wakabayashi Akiko), are a pretty dense lot themselves, and the movie plays a lot like a race to the bottom between evenly-matched nincompoops.

Which is, after all, precisely what Dogora is. Like King Kong vs. Godzilla before it, it's less a monster movie than a genre story into which a monster is introduced, as a complicating element. Dogora goes even further in the direction of effacing the monster's actual impact in the story; when one character observes, warmly, "Nobody expected a diamond thief like Dogora. That definitely complicated things", he's basically conceding that the giant carbon beast that could destroy all organic life was more of a wrinkle than an actual point for the conflict to hook itself to. This was around the time of the first wave of yakuza eiga, the Japanese gangster pictures; it's not so much that Dogora could be read as a parody of that form, as that it must be read that way, spliced with the DNA of The Pink Panther for good measure (there's even more A Shot in the Dark in it, but that's clearly parallel evolution, not influence). To his credit, Honda proves a better director of comedy here than in any of his other broadly comic movies that I've seen, though it was never going to be a strength of his, and there's a lot of tedious goofiness in Dogora before it finally hits its 83rd and final minute.

What helps most of all is the cast: the stock company that tends to crop up in the Toho tokusatsu pictures are all aboard (Tazuki Jun and Koizumi Hiroshi both show up in smallish parts), and visibly having a good time just screwing around. The sight actors who mostly try to be a bit serious, or at least straight-faced, cutting loose and being daffy isn't always a good thing, but in the case of Dogora it's probably the best thing the comedy has going for it: the dumb absurdity that makes up the bulk of the film lands better when the people onscreen are willing and able to flex with it a little bit. I will not pretend to have significantly enjoyed the comedy-thriller side of Dogora - it's repetitive and ultimately trivial - but it works well enough.

And it is, more to the point, a fucking bizarre counter point to Dogora, one of the most unusual and exciting creations in effects director Tsuburaya Eiji's career. A combination of puppetry and post-production, the giant unicelled space creature (but we can't call it a space amoeba, Toho had one of those coming up still) looks like a giant neon jellyfish floating in the sky in balletic slow-motion, and its destruction of the Wakato Bridge is one of the most unexpectedly beautiful and haunting destruction scenes in any daikaiju eiga I can name (shame about the awful cel-animated tentacles, though). The monster never appeared again in a Toho film (it cropped up in the canonically dubious Godzilla Island TV show of the '90s), which is kind of a pity, though it wouldn't have fit in with Godzilla and company too well: it's designed to be insubstantial and ethereal in a way that you can't clobber into oblivion with your giant tail.

It doesn't fit into it's own movie, anyway, so that's not much of a limitation. Clearly, the weird intrusion of such an otherworldy kaiju into such a bonkers story (which does not cease to be bonkers around the monster; the secret weapon used to destroy it is one of the silliest parts of the movie) is meant to be part of the messy comedy, but Dogora is already such an odd thing that having one more element that isn't cohering doesn't do it any good. Don't get me wrong: it's very much worth seeing, if only because I can guarantee you've never seen anything at all like it. But there's a lot of straining nonsense in between the genuinely great monster moments, and the places where the film's randomness coalesces into something magically strange. I admire Toho for going this far afield, but my God, is this ever a dysfunctional piece of cinema.