Neon Genesis Evangelion
Graphic designer Peiran Tan plumbs the typographic psyche of the celebrated anime franchise.
Created and directed by Hideaki Anno, Neon Genesis Evangelion (新世紀エヴァンゲリオン, often abbreviated as NGE or simply EVA) is a Japanese media franchise consisting of four main parts: a twenty-six-episode TV series (1995), two sets of film adaptations (1997 and 2007–), and a manga (1995–2013). Set in the postapocalyptic fortified city Tokyo-3, the series revolves around Shinji Ikari, a teenage boy recruited by his estranged father into a shadowy paramilitary organization known as NERV, for which he and other teenagers must pilot giant biomachines (“Evangelions”) to defeat incoming monsters (“Angels”) who threaten another apocalypse (“Impact”).
After starting out as a typical mechanical-robot (“mecha”) anime, Evangelion gradually evolved into an existentialist deconstruction of its own genre, immediately winning critical acclaim. Its sustained popularity through the years spawned a plethora of spinoff mangas, novel adaptations, games, advertisement tie-ins, and even pachinko gambling machines, leading it to permeate Japanese culture and eventually become a worldwide sensation. Many of its visual motifs became cultural lexicons, including its identity typeface: Matisse EB.
Matisse EB and the Original Evangelion
Evangelion was among the first anime to create a consistent typographic identity across its visual universe, from title cards to NERV’s user interfaces. Subcontractors usually painted anything type-related in an anime by hand, so it was a novel idea at the time for a director to use desktop typesetting to exert typographic control. Although sci-fi anime tended to use either sans serifs or hand lettering that mimicked sans serifs in 1995, Anno decided to buck that trend, choosing a display serif for stronger visual impact. After flipping through Fontworks’ specimen catalog, he personally selected the extra-bold (EB) weight of Matisse (マティス), a Mincho-style serif family.
Just as every mature metal type foundry in the West had to have a Garamond, Matisse was Fontworks’ answer to the Mincho genre for desktop typesetting. Since few computer typefaces existed at the time, completing the face quickly was paramount; stylistic exploration could come in later releases. Furthermore, because the typeface’s initial designer, Francis Chow, was working with inexperienced colleagues at the time, he wanted a direction simple enough for them to follow. A combination of haste and inexperience gave Matisse a plain look and feel, which turned out to make sense for Evangelion. The conservative skeletal construction restrained the characters’ personality so it wouldn’t compete with the animation; the extreme stroke contrast delivered the desired visual punch. Despite the fact that Matisse was drawn on the computer, many of its stroke corners were rounded, giving it a hand-drawn, fin-de-siècle quality.
In addition to a thorough graphic identity, Evangelion also pioneered a deep integration of typography as a part of animated storytelling—a technique soon to be imitated by later anime. Prime examples are the show’s title cards and flashing type-only frames mixed in with the animation. The title cards contain nothing but crude, black-and-white Matisse EB, and are often mechanically compressed to fit into interlocking compositions. This brutal treatment started as a hidden homage to the title cards in old Toho movies from the sixties and seventies, but soon became visually synonymous with Evangelion after the show first aired.
Innovating on the media of animated storytelling, Evangelion also integrates type-only flashes. Back then, these black-and-white, split-second frames were Anno’s attempt at imprinting subliminal messages onto the viewer, but have since become Easter eggs for die-hard Evangelion fans as well as motion signatures for the entire franchise.
Instead of letting Western distributors translate episode titles themselves, the Evangelion staff decided to offer their own English episode titles. These are not direct translations, but rather alternatives or subtitles, often featuring biblical or philosophical references that might be difficult to integrate using Japanese. The English title cards feature a number of different typefaces, often tightly tracked and mechanically compressed. While most titles use Helvetica, the words “NEON GENESIS EVANGELION” are set in one of the bootleg versions of Century or Century Schoolbook that come with numerous Japanese fonts. The same seriffed font (or a similar one) is used in all caps for the titles in Episodes 5, 6, 7, and 23; and in sentence case in Episodes 9, 11, 15, and 25. The lowercase exhibits aggressively shortened descenders, a common feature implemented in Japanese fonts to fit Latin glyphs into the character bounding box. A horizontally squeezed Times is used in 12, 26 (“Take Care of Yourself”), and 26' (“I Need You”). 25' (“Love is Destructive”) appears to feature Matisse EB’s Latin glyphs.
Established in title cards, this combination of Matisse EB and all-caps Helvetica soon bled into various aspects of Evangelion, most notably the HUD user interfaces in NERV. Although it would be possible to attribute the mechanical compression to technical limitations or typographic ignorance, its ubiquitous occurrence did evoke haste and, at times, despair—an emotional motif perfectly suited to a postapocalyptic story with existentialist themes.
If great storytelling made Evangelion popular among anime fans, it would soon become a fin-de-siècle social phenomenon, as a series of real-life episodes unfolded in the franchise’s production process. Budget difficulties, parents’ protest against the show’s graphic imagery, and Anno’s newfound interest in Freudian psychoanalysis all pushed the closing episodes’ visual direction from mainstream to experimental, filled with abstract animation, line drawings, flashbacks, and photographs. Told completely in a stream-of-consciousness style, the final episode “ended” without revealing an actual ending to the story, generating massive controversy on the internet. Feeling betrayed, confused, and angry, some fans made anonymous death threats to Anno in the form of letters and vandalized office façades.
Having managed to cobble together a sufficient budget, Anno was compelled to remake the series in response to fan dissatisfaction with the finale, resulting in two movies: Death & Rebirth and The End of Evangelion. While the former recaps most of the TV episodes, the latter offers a genuine end to the Evangelion story. In utter contrast to the congratulatory mood of the final TV episode, The End of Evangelion is as visually arresting as it is thematically forlorn: the viewer must witness a total meltdown of NERV and the gory deaths of the main characters, culminating in humanity’s extinction, for which the protagonist is directly responsible. As if to further his revenge against disgruntled fans, Anno even incorporated photographs of some of the death-threat letters he received into the movie’s montages. Having solidified its status as visual shorthand for Evangelion, Matisse—this time in its ultra-bold (UB) weight—flooded the movies’ background art and promotional materials with even more unabashed mechanical compression. Aided by the franchise’s boosted popularity, the font CD-ROMs even briefly became sought-after collector’s items.
Rebuild of Evangelion and Matisse Pro EB
Convinced that Evangelion’s story should also adapt to its times, Anno decided to establish his own animation studio in 2006 so he could remake the entire series again. The result was Studio Khara (株式会社カラー) and the movie tetralogy Rebuild of Evangelion (ヱヴァンゲリヲン新劇場版); its first installment was released a year later. While the first movie largely follows the same plot as the 1995 TV series, significant deviation started cropping up at the end of the second movie, and the third entered a completely different plot line.
The original Matisse family was produced in desktop typesetting’s nascent days, its glyphs following the popular Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS), which prescribed what characters should look like. To conform to advances in type technology over the years, Rebuild of Evangelion uses Matisse Pro EB, which Fontworks reengineered to follow the Adobe-Japan standard. The font files were also delivered in OpenType, not the original OCF format. Following a new encoding standard meant that some characters would necessarily look different, so Fontworks kept the original versions as OpenType alternates.
In both Japanese and English versions, mechanical compression officially became a celebrated identity element, used to produce a starker and more austere look for the films. The decision to use mechanical compression instead of commissioning a compressed-width variant is also confirmed by Evangelion’s official website, which loads the normal Matisse Pro EB and then uses the CSS transform property to achieve the compression effect.
Matisse’s Latin counterparts received a facelift, too. Neue Helvetica now complements Matisse on the movies’ user interfaces, sometimes sporting its condensed variant.
As the youngest typeface category, sans serifs have come to be associated with scientific and technological advancement. For example, Akzidenz-Grotesk often appears on Braun products under Dieter Rams’s direction, and Futura was chosen to represent humanity on the moon. Their unadorned letterforms conveyed the precision, progress, and optimism characteristic of mid-century modernism. Evangelion’s incorporation of Futura, Helvetica, and Eurostile in its visual world-building (especially when used for decorating Tokyo-3 and NERV) serves the opposite purpose, however. A last gasp after two presumably destroyed Tokyos, Tokyo-3 is a fortified underground city built to withstand giant monster attacks, its aboveground portion serving directly as a combat zone. Here, civic life gives way to heavy militarization. Civilization is on the brink of collapse, and humanity teeters on the edge of extinction. Futura and Eurostile do appear on objects in Evangelion that are as sophisticated and enormous as NASA rockets in real life—but while space exploration looks to the future with unending aspiration, Evangelion uses these typefaces to document the past and all of its unhealable trauma. In other words, the fact that typefaces like Eurostile and Futura are used in Evangelion as high-modernist signals offers an entry to a profound reflection on the collective human endeavor known as modernism by alluding to a world in which such endeavors were pushed to the limit, having already failed.
Evangelion and Matisse EB in the physical world
Since 2007, Anno has released three of the four planned Rebuild of Evangelion films, and the series has become a worldwide phenomenon. Capitalizing on its almost unparalleled cultural impact, Evangelion has spawned a huge official merchandise business, including electronics accessories, apparel, food, and even outdoor gear. Evangelion merch can also afford to reference a plethora of deeply embedded visual elements without showing entire drawings or scenes for context, the way many other anime need to do. Occupying center stage in these visual references, Matisse Pro EB has earned a couple of fond nicknames: “EVA Ultra Bold Mincho” or “EVA Ultra Bold Serif” (EVA 極太明朝体).
Fans also use the Matisse fonts to express their affection, referencing Evangelion in unexpected places like self-storage lockers.
The fourth and final installment of Rebuild of Evangelion will land in theaters in the summer of 2020, to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics. A ten-minute teaser has already been released in Paris, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and various locations in Japan.
The 1995 TV series and the two 1997 movies featured masterful direction, superb voice acting, and a form of visual storytelling that combined existentialism, Freudian psychoanalysis, teenage angst, and biblical references into a mind-boggling stew. And the series of real-life episodes that accompanied its production process made Evangelion not just a franchise, but also a historical event. For many anime fans born in the eighties and nineties, the word “Evangelion” evokes certain fond memories, as does seeing text set in mechanically compressed Matisse EB. For me personally, as a graphic designer, Evangelion epitomizes the best of both worlds: solid Japanese typography combined with a Swiss sensibility. The final installment of the Rebuild tetralogy will certainly be no exception. Before you see it, be sure to revisit the remastered classic twenty-six-episode TV series and the two 1997 movies on Netflix.
Peiran Tan is an interaction and graphic designer who obsesses over type in his spare time. He has a degree in graphic design from the University of Washington and is currently completing a master’s degree in Georgia Tech’s Human-Computer Interaction program. He would like to thank Francis Chow for shedding light on many of the technical aspects of Matisse’s production process.
8 Comments on “Neon Genesis Evangelion”
Jake says:Oct 17th, 2019 4:56 am
Men’s shirt from Radio EVA, Evangelion’s official fashion label. The fact that “Summer” is the only season not crossed out is an oblique reference to the earth having stopped spinning in the series, leaving Tokyo-3 in a permanent summer
For what it’s worth, this isn’t quite what happened—the Earth not spinning would roast one side of the planet and freeze the other. The actual situation in the show is that in the wake of the world-spanning disaster known as Second Impact, the tilt of the planet’s axis has been reduced, the results being the permanent summer you mentioned as well as the near-total melting of the polar icecaps.
Fuero Dandy says:Oct 17th, 2019 8:41 pm
I know Evangelion for more than 10 years now – and still I learn new things about it, it’s amazing when you think about it, haha.
Your article provided a lot of insight into things I did register but didn’t consider until now. Thank you for the writeup!
Stefan says:Oct 21st, 2019 10:55 pm
It’s refreshing to see such a well-researched, complete and carefully-crafted blog – I’m new to this website but I’ll be sticking around! Thanks.
Stella Wanh says:Oct 22nd, 2019 8:32 pm
Been fascinated by Evangelion’s aesthetics since 15 years ago, work as a graphic designer now, saw your post, can’t describe how satisfying it is!
Andrea A. says:Oct 25th, 2019 3:56 pm
Amazing work! It’s been a pleasure to read it and learn from it.
Diego Almeida says:Oct 28th, 2019 9:45 pm
Great article! I was obsessing over this topic when I rewatched the series on Netflix. It was good to see someone going so deep into this awesome typographic rabbit hole.
A couple of things:
- Throughout the series, you can sometimes catch those control panels with a grotesque other than Helvetica or any of the fonts you listed i think – as seen in one of the gifs in the post, the one with the big countdown “ACTIVE TIME REMAINING/INTERNAL”. There’s a softer R like that of Arial (rounded light) but idk.
- Hey, you forgot to mention what in my opinion is the craziest Evangelion type of all! The high-contrast serif spelling “EVANGELION” behind katakana in the intro logo, like some mecha-didone or mecha-art-deco weirdness.
It was recreated by Icelar in Fontstruct as Evangelion.
Florian Hardwig says:Oct 29th, 2019 8:56 am
Here’s the intro logo mentioned by Diego. Chances are it’s lettering (i.e. custom drawn) and not type (i.e. a font in use), and hence wasn’t discussed by Peiran, but I don’t know for sure. If it’s based on a font, it probably was customized, see the flopped V and the barless A.
Florian Hardwig says:Oct 31st, 2019 11:32 am
This article was linked by Hacker News and received a number of interesting comments. A few selected ones are quoted below.
“…there’s the wonderful observation that ‘the artifacts of your medium will become its defining and desired characteristic’. See how we have systems trying to emulate CRT scanlines, or Synthwave style of music that not only reproduces the limitations of early synths but applies those limitations to newer sounds.” — AceJohnny
“I suppose that mechanical compression faithfully evokes what condensed fonts actively try to mitigate: the squeezing and stretching itself, which lends it a sense of emotional stress and tension.
Also, with digital fonts as new as they were when NGE was released, it’s likely that compression seems more like a novel way to establish identity, rather than the now ubiquitous ignorant rescaling of fonts.” — jhanschoo
“Regarding mechanical compression: it’s probably not 100% so, but afaik in kanji/hanzi and likely many other SEA scripts [SEA = South East Asian? Chinese or Japanese should be East Asian, not South East Asian — ed.], proportions of a character don’t matter much―they’re just strokes in a grid that you can squish without harm to legibility. That’s why labels on cheap Chinese goods often had deformed quasi-monospace Latin type: the author just had no idea anything is wrong.” — aasas
Peiran notes that he contests the statement that Hanzi’s proportions don’t matter much – “they matter a lot from a stylistic signifiers standpoint – but this commenter does have a point that legibility deteriorates slow for Chinese characters under mechanical compression.”
“Yes, U+FF01–U+FF5E is a ‘full width’ copy of printable ASCII (U+0021–U+007E).
Ｙｅｓ， Ｕ＋ＦＦ０１－Ｕ＋ＦＦ５Ｅ ｉｓ ａ ｀ｆｕｌｌ ｗｉｄｔｈ＇ ｃｏｐｙ ｏｆ ｐｒｉｎｔａｂｌｅ ＡＳＣＩＩ （Ｕ＋００２１－Ｕ＋００７Ｅ）．” — kps
According to Peiran, that’s a “brilliant mention of fullwidth ideographic characters in Unicode, which are devised precisely to accommodate metal-era Japanese type founding practices, just like the aggressively shortening of descenders.”
“There is one more anime that comes to mind if we’re talking about typography – Bakemonogatari. Throughout the series still images are shown containing vital information about the thoughts of characters, events’ second meaning, puns, etc. Sometimes split second only, sometimes in a fast slides. Really novel and interesting take on animation.
Example: https://youtu.be/-jm-xrO2c_0 (first 30 seconds shows one of the still images and there’s much more)” — wst_
Peiran agrees that the Monogatari series is another example of integrating typography into animated storytelling. He add that “it’s also using typography as the series’s graphic identity – the FangSong style, faux-italicized, then individually rotated back to upright position.”