Ita-Planes: Flying Devotion
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Art on combat aircraft featuring beautiful women is an image that has been etched into aviation history. It is easy to conjure up a mental picture of Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, or any other "bombshell" beauty on the side of an American World War II heavy bomber. In this day and age, people that partake in flight gaming and flight simulation have seen fewer classic pinups on social media and forums and more of something like... 2D Japanese pop stars along the wing of glittering fighter jets. What seems to have started as a one-off crossover has become somewhat of a tradition in its own right. This phenomenon began 14 years ago and has now spread far beyond the first series that introduced them. It's about time someone provided a thorough explanation.
For (likely) a majority of people that see them, these aircraft are perhaps some of the gaudiest creatures to ever take to the skies. Adorned with bright high visibility paint, shimmering stars, stripes, and hearts, and clad in collages, it’s hard to ignore the pictures of them. Their designs usually violate multiple military standards for low visibility combat operations and are certainly outside the realm of tradition for general aviation flying. But why, when, and how is this something people do?
Itasha (ee-tah-sha; イタ車) is a Japanese slang term used to describe this practice. Combining the words for “pain” and “vehicle,” it is used to describe highly decorated vehicles with the tone of the term being along the lines of “painfully embarrassing,” “painful for the wallet,” “painful to look at” or to use a modern Western term “cringeworthy.” This term is mainly used in jest by those who partake in the hobby directly.
The origins of this real-world practice vary, but generally, it is accepted that its roots came from Japan in the 1980s. Back then, people would decorate their cars externally and internally with stickers, plushies, and similar memorabilia usually dedicated to one subject or individual. As Japanese anime became increasingly popular worldwide in the mid-2000s, some of the first reports of highly decorated cars appearing at conventions began in 2005. They spawned its own automotive-focused conventions, similar to car shows, in 2007. Nowadays, it’s an international practice; these vehicles can be found in just about any country.
It’s well beyond just slapping a few stickers on the bumper. Even high-performance cars are purchased with custom wraps, body kits, and racing-grade hardware to take their presentation to the next level. The amount of money expended on a single itasha car can easily reach tens or hundreds of thousands of US dollars when it is fully assembled. Depending on the complexity of the final product. This video from Zoom Out Media and DIY timelapse of a complete wrap by L-Dragon provide further examples. On the professional level, itasha cars are sponsored by companies to promote products, events, individuals and are used by racing teams.
The real world itasha cars have inspired many to create elaborate liveries for cars in games like Need for Speed, Forza, and similar titles. It is in this same vein that we begin to understand how this transferred to aircraft. Let’s use terms like ita-aircraft or ita-planes to describe them for our purposes.
Before we get to that, there’s something that should be addressed. In the beginning, the inclusion of the first itasha themed aircraft into a certain game was considered an easter egg by those that did not understand the concept. Addressing this briefly, an easter egg is a sort of reference, clue, or inside joke placed into audio or visual media. A type of wink and nod to others that understand it that’s usually done subtlety. For example, the Ridge Racer and Tekken are well-known purveyors of references to other Bandai-Namco-owned video games. Its easter eggs are for many games from as early as the 1980s up to their recent titles. They are referenced in billboards, logos, racing teams, vehicle manufacturers, background scenery, and advertisements on buildings. In contrast, the itasha style is designed for no other purpose than openly conveying an overwhelming interest in something or someone.
The Idol Master
The inspirational source for the first ita-aircraft liveries. The Idol Master (stylized as "The iDOLM@STER", "IM@S") focuses on female and male artists on their journey to become successful idols in the music industry.
This Bandai-Namco-owned series started as an arcade-only game on the Namco 246 arcade system on July 26th, 2005. IM@S comprises dozens of games, animated TV series, live-action TV series, light novels, audio dramas, manga, live concerts, virtual reality experiences, and an ever-expanding discography of music. At its core, the overall story is centered around companies and producers of aspiring idols working to become successful in the music industry.
Much of the series’ initial success can be attributed to the enduring phenomenon of the Japanese idol. Since the idol boom in Japan in the 1970s, talent agencies have sought, trained, and promoted individuals and groups to have successful careers. The potential for high popularity idols is vast. Appearances in TV shows, acting in movies, becoming the face of social campaigns, stage plays, clothing lines, and many other commercial opportunities may await them. Needless to say, idols generate mobs of devoted fans that frequently put their images on itasha cars.
Ace Combat: Rise of the Ita-Aircraft
Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation (2007) was a significant release for that series. Downloadable content (DLC) was one of many new things introduced to the series with this release. Most of the DLC packs provided new liveries for the existing aircraft with a handful of new maps for its online game modes. Along with a unique external appearance, the DLC liveries also modified the aircraft's flight characteristics and weapon load outs once they were equipped. A similar concept, Aircraft Tuning, was introduced in a limited capacity in Ace Combat X: Skies of Deception (2006), but AC6's approach differed entirely.
November 22nd, 2007. This is where it begins. The release of DLC Pack 02 was the introduction of the first iDOLM@STER themed aircraft: Su-33 -THE IDOLMASTER MIKI-.
Its itasha-styled livery would set the standard for all future designs for years to come. All DLC packs for Ace Combat 6 would include at least one new IM@S livery. The first iDOLM@STER game on the Xbox 360 that featured the original cast of characters was also released in 2007. The inclusion of its characters on aircraft in Ace Combat was a cross-promotional effort.
The impact of these brightly colored, decal-covered aircraft was immediate. Usually, the flashiest liveries found in flight games and simulators are based on real-world flight demonstration teams, CAG birds, military exercises like Tiger Meet, or aggressor squadrons from around the globe. There had never been an aircraft in an Ace Combat game or other flight titles up to this point that looked like they did.
Performance-wise, the changes to aircraft statistics and in-flight characteristics were the most noticeable of all DLC aircraft. Flight characteristics included quirks that reflected a part of the personalities of the idols. Some would continuously roll, remain highly maneuverable at nearly Mach 2, or deaccelerate faster than any other aircraft in the game. Others only turned well at a specific speed, had slower lock-on capabilities, or could instantly reach high speeds but could not maneuver. Furthermore, they were equipped with missiles that discharged colored smoke that matched the aircraft, and the number of weapons carried was adjusted to match the Three-Size body measurements of the idols.
IM@S aircraft instantly garnered confusion, criticism, and a solid raft of support from the Ace Combat and Idol M@ster series fans. At the height of online activity, these aircraft were frequently seen in high-level multiplayer rooms. Opinions on their visuals aside, the benefits of their altered performance were undeniable to the point where specific IM@S aircraft became infamous. Hosts of multiplayer rooms and online competitive events would go as far as banning them and their users altogether.
With news of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (2011) being set in the real world with a military fiction-style plot, IM@S aircraft seemed to be relegated to a one-time-only appearance. But not even the backdrop of a NATO anti-insurgency mission in Africa which turned into a military coup in Russia, could halt the inclusion of IM@S aircraft as downloadable content. An additional monotone, more low-visibility style liveries were paired with updated versions of the Ace Combat 6 liveries. Aircraft handling quirks and enhancements that defined them were removed. These changes provided a rebalance to the game’s online multiplayer by bringing the base abilities of the IM@S aircraft in line with the rest of the aircraft roster. Only through the use of the universally available Pilot Skill function could they be altered.
The most extensive inclusion of iDOLM@STER themed aircraft came with Ace Combat Infinity (2014). By the end of the game’s service on March 31st, 2018, 13 aircraft, over 40 aircraft emblems, and a set of collaboration events encompassed the IM@S presence.
IM@S aircraft variants received somewhat altered in-game specifications and performance compared to standard versions of the aircraft, but once again, the alterations were not as overwhelming as their 2007 introduction. Their price point was the most enticing aspect of them. Each could be purchased for 765 in-game credits to unlock at level 1. This cost was an homage to 765 Production studio, a significant production company in the Idol M@ster series. No matter the aircraft, the cost was applied as long as it featured an IM@S paint scheme. For example, the standard B-2A Spirit stealth strategic bomber could be purchased at level 1 for 3,011,580 credits, while a level 1 IM@S B-2A was available for 765 credits.
Ita-aircraft have been used to promote products and collaborate with other game series within Ace Combat. In 2011, an F-2A Viper Zero was added to Ace Combat: Assault Horizon to cross-promote the book “Ace Combat: Ikaros in the Sky.” It featured a bikini-clad well-known recurring character, Kei Nagase, painted across the left wing with insignias for a military test pilot unit from the book and other series related markings.
Tekken collaborations have also occurred. Some of its characters, Jin Kazama, Kazuya Mishima, Alisa Bosconovitch, and Ling Xiaoyu, had liveries created as DLC for Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (2011). These aircraft were reintroduced to Ace Combat Infinity in October 2014 as a part of a multi-week collaboration event.
The re-released version of Ace Combat 3D: Cross Rumble Plus (November 4th, 2014) added Amiibo support. Registering specific Amiibos unlocked liveries that featured famous video game characters. While each of them did not follow the itasha style design completely, the liveries for Link, Luigi, and Princess Peach were in line with the style.
While Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (2019) still has not officially added ita-aircraft as of the time this article has been released, the need to wait for Bandai-Namco or Project Aces, the developer of the series, has long passed.
The long-term presence of the ita-aircraft in a well-known series like Ace Combat resulted in the circulation of screenshots, videos, and fan art for over a decade now. Because of this influence, there are now ita-aircraft liveries for multiple games thanks to the efforts of skin modders (aka livery creators). Because they are now created by individuals outside of a game development team, they can be added to any sim the modders will commit their time and effort to.
Ita-aircraft are now available as free to download, or paid commissions for War Thunder, ARMA 3, Ace Combat (multiple games), Digital Combat Simulator, Tom Clancy’s HAWX, Flight Simulator X, Strike Fighters 2, World of Warplanes, Project Wingman, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 - the list goes on. The subjects of these liveries are no longer solely characters from Bandai-Namco-owned intellectual property. Now just about any anime character, comic book character, musician, show, meme, content creator, VTuber, organization, events, nothing is off the table. The image gallery below speaks for itself:
In a rare game developer example, ita-aircraft are the standard design in the game Fatal Employee Training (2012), developed by the Everyone in the Materials Department Doesn’t Learn their Lesson team, published by Project ICKX.
There are real-world aircraft that follow the itasha style. The most well-known examples involve airliners designed for anime series like Pokemon, with known civilian general aviation aircraft around the world. An especially interesting example of a Nier Automata themed Rutan VariEze based in Torrance Airport, California, USA. The Japanese Ground Self Defense Force is also known to have utilized ita-aircraft for recruitment purposes.
Creative Process (Guest Writer: Cubeboy)
While these paint schemes are not for everyone, there is something about creating them that I have always enjoyed. The first ones I ever made were for IL-2 1946, and more specifically, for a couple of the modern jet mods that were available for that game. They take a significant amount of effort and planning to create them. You have to adhere to a theme, usually one that fits the character you are basing the livery around. Then you have to select your color pallet, personally I like sticking to 4 colors and 2 secondary undertones. Then you have to think about the design itself taking into consideration the UV mapping of the 3D model. The more divided it is, the harder a livery like this becomes. For this example, let's use a full-body skin I made for Zweikaku, a virtual aviator and VRChat aviation world creator:
The theme for this livery was the Black Aces Squadron VVFA-41. I tried including their emblems and logos on places that would fit while also keeping an aesthetic balance between them and the main character art on the left wing. The colors I picked are the ones present in the character's clothing: maroon, dark gray, white and light pink. After the theme, design and art assets have been acquired; then I start start assembling the livery file. As you can see bellow, these kinds of liveries are not easy to assemble due to the way that the UV map has been laid out. As you can see in the image below, the 3D model for the DCS Hornet module has been divided into two main diffuses plus a couple of others for the external tanks, helmet, pilot textures, etc. Diffuse 1 includes the nose and tail sections of the fuselage, plus part of the hump and almost all the mechanical parts. Diffuse 2 includes the wings, elevons, vertical stabilizers and the mid section of the fuselage plus the back part of the hump, pylons, external model cockpit textures, etc.
The hardest part, by far, is when it comes to the alignment of the character art in the wing. As you can see the wing is divided into several sections, one per movable section. It is really easy to see that these parts are not perfectly aligned, which requires a lot of tweaking and sometimes even re-drawing of the art in question. In this case, I had to play with the proportions of the character, her pose and even a bit of re-drawing on her left arm. I also included, for the first time, a complete character art. That means that the legs and feet have to be proportioned in such a way that you can imagine the entire body even when half of it is missing. That meant that I had to play with the pose of her legs in order to have them fit inside the left elevon.
But after all that hard work (which included a new set of roughmet textures, engine feathers and some normalmap tweaks), you end up with something that does not look that bad, if you are into this kind of thing!
The animated idols of Japan may or may not make another official appearance in Ace Combat, but a recent announcement related to the newest Idol M@ster game has shown an ADF-11 Raven fighter jet outfit available for its singing and dancing idols to wear on stage.
Like it or not, the presence of ita-aircraft in flight games and flight simulators has been established and perpetuated for over 14 years. Whether they’re original fans of the 2007 Idol M@ster aircraft or creators expressing devotion to their interests, people continue bringing these designs to every place they take to the skies.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.