Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster represents the most profound shift in the fortunes of the Godzilla franchise throughout the first 20 years of its existence. On the most essential level, it's the point where outright science fiction entered the picture, and as a direct result, it's the point at which the series' evergreen screenwriter Sekizawa Shinichi finally perfected the unbelievably weird and warped storytelling style that he'd employ nonstop in the Godzilla films he wrote from that point. As far as the monsters we see onscreen, it's the first of the truly epic-scale monster rallies, the one where the monsters become fully anthropomorphic in their behaviors and personalities, and the one where the monster-on-monster fights come to resemble wrestling matches more than brawls between giant animals. Most importantly to me, it introduces my favorite daikaiju ever, the titular King Ghidorah - according to the Toho-sanctioned English title, anyway. The Japanese original translates as Three Giant Monsters: The Greatest Battle on Earth. Which is more descriptive and really, no less hokey. Though it undersells the thing: there are in fact four giant monsters, and for that reason it very much is just about the greatest battle on Earth; at any rate, the climactic monster mash is better than any of the fight scenes in the "huge monster ensemble" films that Toho would intermittently release thereafter.

And we'll get back to all of that, but first, the biggest, most shocking shift of all, which is that, perhaps uniqely in the Godzilla series, the human half of the narrative in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is so captivatingly loopy and well-expressed, that the film would be just as good if there were no monsters in it at all. Okay, so not "just as" good. Still, it's a rare enough achievement in these films when the non-monster material is enjoyable enough to fill the space in between monster scenes. For it to be, arguably, the best part of the feature is absolutely ridiculous to even imagine.

What happens, in its briefest form, is that Japanese police detective Shindo (Natsuki Yosuke) has been assigned as bodyguard for the visiting Princess Selina Salno (Wakabayashi Akiko), of the apparently central-Asian nation of Selgina. That country is rife with political uneasiness, and the princess doesn't even make it as far as Japan before a strange force urges her to simply walk out of her plane, thousands of feet in the air, just before rebel forces blow the plane apart. So much for Shindo's big chance to meet the princess.

Except, there is at this point a huge media circus surrounding a large meteor which many people took to be a flying saucer at first, and UFO mania is gripping the country. Which makes it a pregnant moment for a woman to emerge, claiming to be a 5,000 year old psychic from Venus. And not just any woman, but the very spitting image of Princess Selina. Shindo thus has a big job again, but it goes beyond an apparent case of free-fall inspired amnesia: the self-described Venusian begins making prophecies about the giant monsters soon to arise: first, the devastation around Mt. Aso, where a pair of giant pteranodons were buried years ago in the movie Rodan, has been upset by the passing meteors, and this has revived Rodan. Second, a ship in the Pacific Ocean is attacked and destroyed by Godzilla, who was merely inconvenienced by his incapacitation in Mothra vs. Godzilla, earlier the same year (it should be clarified that Ghidorah doesn't make mention of chronology, or even allude to in-series continuity in more than a glancing way). These two monsters rampaging across the country are merely the appetizer for the greatest monster yet to come: the same intergalactic beast, King Ghidorah, who destroyed the civilisation of Venus, and whose arrival on Earth is directly linked to those weird meteors being studied by Professor Miura (Koizumi Hiroshi).

None of that, even the amnesiac princess reborn as a millennia-old Venusian, is the really random and absurd part. While all of this is happening, a new TV show is all the rage, giving regular citizens a chance to meet famous people. One day, their guests are two little boys who want above all to meet the heroic daikaiju Mothra, and the producers accommodate them by bringing the twin fairies (Ito Emi & Ito Yuki, making their very last appearance in a daikaiju eiga, I am sorry to say) to sing a new chant to their god, who appears in a vision to the TV audience. Or maybe just to the movie audience. It's really hard to parse out what's going on, except that it's awesomely "pop-art from the mid-'60s" in the editing. Anyway, the fairies are so impressed by the Venusian's predictions, saving them from death by Godzilla, that they proclaim her as a great prophet. This does not stop the Selginan assassin Malness (Ito Hisaya) from pursuing her even through monster attacks, nor Shindo from packing her off to a psychiatrist (Shimura Takashi, in his very last daikaiju eiga) to try and cure her of a delusion that the doctor isn't even quite sure exists, nor are we given that every word she has so far said has turned out to be true.

It's damn stupid in a lot of ways, but I unabashedly love all of this. Spy movie, fantasy, mystery; the film picks up whatever idea looks like it isn't pinned down and runs with it as long as possible, creating a giddy sense of unpredictability and weirdness. At the same time, director Honda Ishirō's continued reluctance to direct his kaiju films like the comedies they were rabidly becoming means that the tone of Ghidorah is relentlessly sincere, serious, and measured, so that even as things become weirder and weirder, we're never invited to look down on the material as absurd junk. It might not sound like that's valuable or even desirable, but once the Godzilla films dove off the cliff, something like the essentially camp-free Ghidorah would thrown into sharper relief as the far more noble and effective approach. But we're not to that point yet, not in 1964.

The film is often criticised for the isolation of its human and monster halves, which is much more true of the American cut (which retains almost all of the same material but radically re-shapes its order) than the Japanese original, in which the arrival of the monsters is almost staged in religious terms: first there are the harbingers Rodan and Godzilla, then the end comes in the form of King Ghidorah. And we are saved by supplication to Mothra, whom the Japanese government entreats to leave Infant Island to act as intermediary, negotiating with Godzilla and Rodan to fight on Earth's behalf against Ghidorah. Because no, sir, this movie ain't done with being all kinds of what-the-fuck bizarre by any stretch of the imagination.

The protracted monster battles that end the movie are fun, but they are even more silly: the silliest moment of all being a scene in which Godzilla and Rodan lobby a large rock back and forth while Mothra (in her larval form; there is no Mothra imago in Ghidorah, I imagine because that would make for three winged monsters in one picture, and that would be gilding the lily) patiently watches back and forth - it is clearly meant to evoke a tennis match, of all the random things in the world. This is merely the most overt moment where the film makes absolutely no effort to pretend these are animals: they are people now, big, skyscraper-sized people who look like dinosaurs and dragons. The fighting is openly modeled on wrestling, as I said, and the monsters all have vividly-defined personalities expressed through reaction shots and body language. Body language! How is a daikaiju even supposed to have body language?

But they do, and it's delightful as all hell - it will not remain so, but in this moment, it works splendidly. This despite all three of the returning monsters looking a bit raggedy: Godzilla and Rodan are frequently played by puppets with realistically swiveling eyes and jaws that drop open with an almost palpable plastic clack. Rodan, incidentally, now looks like a cross-breeding of an eagle and a pterosaur, not remotely the sleek beast he was before; and the Godzilla suit, salvaged from Mothra vs. Godzilla as much as possible, looks absolutely wretched above the neck, more rubbery and fake than any Toho daikaiju to that point.

It's all redeemed, though by the energy with which Tsuburaya Eiji staged the action, and even more by the monster they're teaming up to beat: King Ghidorah is a damned masterpiece of design and execution. The first outright fantasy monster in the franchise, and the most openly Asian in mentality, he's a three-headed, two-tailed golden dragon with giant wings instead of arms, and long necks that flail around violently but never hectically: there is a sense of raging giant snakes straining to dart forward at speed. Later Ghidorah suits would look better than this one, so I'll save my gushing for those, but even now, the feeling is not that we have an animal, even a giant and destructive one, but an object of malice and evil. He's the first real monster in these monster movies, looking angry and acting angry and gigantic and physically overpowering even next to the excellent heft and muscle of the Godzilla suit. There's plenty to love in this random, strange exercise in warped imagination and genre-busting plotlines, but Ghidorah is the thing I love the best, and while I know in my heart that this is a very daft movie overall, it's one of my top-tier favorite Godzilla pictures regardless.