Bringing The Pain: Itasha Culture In America

Long time readers will recall that aside from being a car nut I'm an anime fan and so I've long been fascinated by itasha. It's the Japanese term for cars slathered in graphics of anime or video game characters and is basically a contraction of “itai jidosha” - literally “pain car” because of how painfully embarrassing they're viewed as being. Ah, normals, they don't know what they're missing...
A perfect example of an itasha with graphics from the series Angel Beats

Almost a year ago I briefly talked about itasha but that post was mainly just photos from one of Japan's big meets. Last month I was at Anime Expo (AX for short), America's most massive, humongous, and just plain big anime convention, where after a long day of autograph hunting, shopping, and squeezing through a bigger crowd than South Africa's annual sardine run I happened to find a gathering of some American itasha. Right beside this display of mobile anime fandom was a large exhibit showcasing the history of the GoodSmile Racing Super GT motorsports team. Grade schoolers on a snow day would have looked positively depressed compared to how psyched I was to see this confluence of more than a few of my favorite things.

Let me kick things off by sharing some photos from the GoodSmile Racing (GSR for short) exhibit:
This banner talked about GSR's history starting from 2010 when it took over the Studie GLAD team that raced Porsches in Super GT.

GSR has run an itasha race car from the very beginning and always with a different design for virtual singer Hatsune Miku every season.

2011 not only had my favorite GSR Miku design so far but it was also the year that ace drifter Nob "The Pimp" Taniguchi and Taku Bamba took the team to the GT300 championship win.

Here's a close-up of that 2011 Super GT trophy.
Every year had it's own display.

Some of the stuff from the 2012 display.

2013 is probably my second favorite Miku design but there was no championship for GSR that year, although they did take 2 wins and third in the driver's standings despite scaling back to a one-car effort instead of two.

The race queen costume display was awesome. Sadly no actual race queens were present :(

Although they got a podium finish at the first round GSR has had just an okay run so far this season. Adjusting to the new AMG GT may be one reason.

Not only did GSR have this cool exhibit but they also had a merchandise booth and they were promoting their personal sponsorship program. The sponsorship program is basically a tiered system where you can contribute money to GSR to help support the race team and in exchange you get exclusive GoodSmile Racing sponsor merchandise and the smug self-satisfaction that you're a race team sponsor just like the big companies! Who needs blood money from energy drink companies and antiperspirant manufacturers when good old Joe Public can foot the bill, right?

I was feeling broke though so I had to settle for a shirt. Maybe GSR can use the proceeds to buy some instant noodles for the pit crew.

Moving on to the itasha, the collection was quite the eclectic mix but you could tell a lot of effort had been put into these cars. Seeing all of them piqued my curiosity about the state of itasha culture in the US and what it was like to own one of these cars here in the States where anime is still a niche fandom instead of an integral part of pop culture like in Japan.

Unfortunately time and social demands meant I didn't have a chance to try and track down any of the owners personally at Anime Expo but I was luckily able to find one of them later on through the 21st century magic of the interwebs as well as interview another itasha owner from Northern California to get their perspectives on the US itasha scene.

First was Jun Osumi who happened to own my favorite car at the AX display – the awesome widebody Evo X below. I liked it so much I thought about using his car for the lead image to this post but I'm a Nissan fanboy so the R32 sedan won out (and I like Girls Dead Monster's songs too so that sealed the deal).
This would be a cool Evo even without the itasha livery but it's extremely eye-catching with it on.

Nissans may be my first love but I've always really liked the Evo X and Jun's is a very nicely kitted out example. Highlights include a Chargespeed front bumper with Password JDM CF canards, D1 widebody kit, shiny 19-inch Work wheels, Bride seats, various engine mods and tuning by RoadRace Engineering for a healthy 415hp on E85, and a metric crapton of other stuff, not least of which is that stunning itasha wrap which is so shiny, much bling.

The story of the car is fascinating – Jun is a long-time anime fan but his daughter's shared love for anime inspired the creation of this great example of itasha culture. The graphics were chosen because of his daughter's liking for virtual idol Hatsune Miku but parts of it also reflect a tribute to the unfortunate passing of Jun's brother at a young age. Since he also has an online car parts business called Junproject.com the car works great as well for promotional purposes.

As you can expect with a car this unique and extensively modded, Jun's Evo has won its fair share of car show trophies. Of course itasha are still very much a niche phenomenon in the US car scene but happily Jun relates that he only occasionally runs into haters, with most people who take the time to notice his car giving him a big thumbs up – which he also gets from me as a fellow car nut and anime fan!

Jun's comments about his car being well received by most people were echoed by Carson Johnson, owner of an itasha Miata in Northern California. Although Carson's car wasn't among the ones at AX he graciously agreed to share his thoughts on being an itasha owner in the US.
According to Jalopnik the answer is always Miata - apparently that holds true for itasha as well.

Images courtesy of the owner Carson Johnson

Carson's 1990 Miata isn't as heavily modded as Jun's Evo but you can see just as much pride of ownership when he talks about it. Interestingly Carson relates that instead of being an anime fan who happened to be into cars as well, he started out as a car nut who wanted to make his vehicle unique and settled on turning it into an itasha to be able to stand out. Interesting as well is how a female influence also guided the choice of character shown on his car, although instead of a daughter it was his girlfriend that joked it should be someone with a similar hair color to her. That resulted in the choice of someone from the military-inspired anime Kantai Collection. Carson has the benefit of being part of a group of fellow itasha fans called West Coast Itasha that helped me get in touch with him.

Now let's move on to the rest of the cars from Anime Expo:
Evangelion is another anime series that has a Super GT team and this Civic partly took inspiration from that.

Cars aren't the only things that get ita-fied in Japan. Motorcycles and push bikes get the treatment too. This display was from one of the organizers of the exhibit: Culture Japan - a company that promotes Japanese tourism and culture.

Another vocaloid-themed itasha like Jun's Evo.

Another Evo X - though not quite as modded as Jun's it's just as ita-fied...

...all the way to having a small exhibit of Kantai Collection merchandise on the dash.

Civics are of course a ubiquitous platform in the import tuning scene and it's the same in itasha circles.

Most of the cars there happened to have a Vocaloid theme - this one from spinoff property Black Rock Shooter.

Still more Hatsune Miku - this time drawing from the 2012 GSR livery.

The Dodge Charger is a cool car (especially if it's a Hellcat) but it was still weird seeing one here in full itasha livery.

Going more old-school with a fifth-gen Celica...

...and an S13 that may be familiar if you've read my previous itasha article. I posted a pic of this one snagged in a parking lot in that post.

Anime has gained a larger and larger following through the years in the US with ever larger conventions being held (AX topped a hundred thousand attendees this year), more and more shows being released simultaneously as they air in Japan, and even some big Hollywood films now being developed based on popular franchises. Of course it's still nowhere near as pervasive here as in Japan and even as a diehard fan I hardly believe it ever will be, so itasha will likely remain a curiosity here in the US but seeing these cars and talking to the owners shows that this is a culture just as vibrant and interesting as any other in car fandom. Since having more people be interested in cars is a great thing for us gearheads this is one case where pain is good to have.


Comments

  1. Ouuuu. Cool! Nice coverage Oliver!
    I stumbled your page by coincidence!

    I'm the owner of the s13. If you want to get a hold of the other itasha owners to interview you're welcome to message me and I can try to get whomever is interested in doing so.

    Facebook: @ItaAntics

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    1. Glad you found the site and like the article! If you read my latest post about taking up car photography more seriously what I'd really like to do now is get a chance to take better pics of your cars since these shots were taken before I started working on my photo skills lol. I'll drop you a line and I can see if there's a time I can make it out to California when you guys are showing off your rides. At the very least I hope I run into you and your S13 at MacrossWorldCon lol.

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