Par Myrtille Tibayrenc
For several years now, Claude Estèbe, specialist in Japanese visual culture, has undertaken a personal photographic research using cheap plastic toys as his models and exploring the frontier between the original and its copies. He has gathered a huge collection of pachimons, a colloquial Japanese term for cheap and naive copies of toys derived from monster movies and TV series, such as Godzilla or Gundam robots. The abundance of these cheap replicas collected all over South East Asia reveals the great impact of the Japanese subculture that has reached even the most remote areas of Asia.
Giant robots appeared in Japanese anime series in the early fifties and car- ry on their expansion up to this day: Tetsujin 28, Getter Robot, Grendizer, Gundam, Evangelion … These names have become familiar around the world and an intense merchandising has bloomed. The sumptuous toys and detailed plastic models in bright colors of these series make you forget the gloomy conditions of their genesis; born from the memories of Japanese artists that had experienced in their childhood the terror of carpet bombing and the af- termath of atomic explosions. These misfortunes had a common source: the sparkling silhouette of a B 29 Superfortress flying unreachable in the upper atmosphere. After the war, this superior technology became the very proto- type of giant robots. But over time, these warriors of steel incorporated other aesthetics, like samurai armor and helmets.
Cheap replicas or pachimons carry on their own aesthetics and proliferate in different ways. Either, by a process of simplification they reach the essence of the original, either their aspect degenerates gradually in a kind of shapeless “thing”. These debased toys incorporate local elements as well, in Thailand for instance, the samurai helmets become Khon theater masks for giant war- riors armed indifferently with futuristic lasers, Kalashnikovs, halberds and scimitars…
The japanese robots were designed in primary, childlike colors: white, red, blue, yellow. As to mask their violence, their metal bodies were softened by the vinyl plastic used for making the toys. In documenting pachimon copies with cruder forms, one brings back to the surface the muted violence of the originals. By enhancing the defects and imperfections, playing with special lighting techniques and close up compositions, Claude Estèbe extracts the humanity of these mass-produced toys. Taken out of context, these striking figures become archetypal objects – modern tribal gods or mythological he- roes lost in time.