Revisiting the Attack on Titan OVAs

The Final Season of the Attack on Titan anime will finally be coming to an end in 2023 (third time’s the charm). While the episodes have been enjoyed widely by fans across the world over the past nine years, there’s been other Titan content which hasn’t reached as far, including but by no means limited to the eight OVA episodes (or OADs as they’re technically called in the credits). Their initial releases were as single-episode DVDs bundled with special editions of certain manga volumes. However late last year, Funimation announced that they would be streaming all eight, making them much more accessible and in higher quality than the DVD versions. If you’re a fully-caught-up fan of the series but haven’t come across these side-stories you can probably jump right in, but the question still remains of what the best way to watch them in conjunction with the series proper would be. They were released over the course of five years after all, not to mention how they jump all over the timeline. And with how popular this franchise is, new Attack on Titan fans are no doubt being made every day! Today we’re going to be looking back at the Attack on Titan OVAs: I’ll be helping you figure out which ones you’d be interested in watching, as well as going over when they came out and how they came to be.


I’m going to try keeping this spoiler-free (as much as that’s possible with this series), Titan’s plot twists and mysteries are big parts of its appeal after all. I understand that not all people are equally concerned with spoilers, and obviously I can’t tell how much or little you’ve seen or read of Attack on Titan without being psychic. All I can do is let you know when each OVA was originally released, when its source material was released if applicable, and when I think they’re best viewed if you were to watch through the series for the first time. Hopefully that will provide enough info for you to make a good choice of how to watch these even if you disagree.

Ilse’s Notebook

The good news for these first 3 OVAs is that they all take place around the same time chronologically and can be watched once you’ve seen season 1, as they were released during the four-year gap between seasons 1 and 2. Ilse’s Notebook, The Sudden Visitor, and Distress take place at various points while Eren and friends are in training as cadets, and while they weren’t released in exact chronological order, the stories themselves are pretty self-contained. First up is Ilse’s Notebook: Memoirs of a Scout Regiment Member which was initially bundled with volume 12 of the Japanese manga release in December 2013, a few months after season 1 had finished airing. As the title suggests, the Scouts come across a notebook that once belonged to Ilse Langnar and contains her recount of being stranded alone in Titan territory. Out of all the OVAs, this is the one most directly-linked to the overarching mysteries of Attack on Titan and like with the rest of the episodes, it’s all about foreshadowing things in distant episodes to keep viewers guessing rather than straight-up giving it away. It’s based on a special manga chapter of the same name that was released with the fifth tankobon volume (August, 2011 in Japan, which coincidentally was around when the ongoing manga was reaching the end of season 1’s content).

With the original story only being one chapter long it wouldn’t fill a full 24-minute episode on its own, and this anime adaptation adds additional scenes in the form of the scouts actually finding the notebook and responding to its contents. A lot of it concerns Hange being seen as an oddball and their interactions with Levi and Oruo, and while that content is fine I did find it a shame that Ilse herself didn’t get much screen time here. Regardless, her story is intriguing and puts a spotlight on the grim reality for stranded soldiers in the world of Titan. First-time viewers who hadn’t read the manga probably only came across Ilse in the Attack on Titan: Junior High spin-off, where she writes for the school newspaper club instead. Without spoiling things, the events of Ilse’s Notebook will inevitably point your suspicions to one specific character from season 1. Again, it’s not like everything about that person was completely given away in one go but you’ll probably be expecting something from them when you return to the show proper. Then again, that’s just how this side-story was originally released in both manga and anime form, and I’m only saying this because I didn’t get to see this OVA during my first watchthrough of the series. It’s not as if you can’t appreciate the overall series without having seen Ilse’s Notebook, but watching it after season 1 will give you a safe sneak peek without showing you too much. It’s labeled “episode 3.5” but I would still advise watching after season 1, as you likely won’t get as much out of the Scouts’ interactions without getting to know them from the series first.

The Sudden Visitor

Next comes The Sudden Visitor: The Torturous Curse of Youth, orginally bundled with tankobon volume 13 which was released in Japan in April 2014. Unlike Ilse’s Notebook, this is a much lighter side-story about the not-so-dangerous life of Jean Kirschtein. Attack on Titan does have its moments of comedy here and there but it’s obviously not prominent in a world where death looms around every corner. This OVA however is all about the comedy, mainly concerning a cooking contest and Jean being embarrassed by his mom. It’s actually very good-humored about how serious and dramatic the rest of the show can get, by applying the full force of that drama to much sillier things. In fact you’ve probably seen the OP itself floating around YouTube: an exact copy of the iconic Guren no Yumiya sequence but with edits to make Jean look like the star.

Aside from Jean’s embarrassment at being seen as a momma’s boy, several other characters’ quirks are brought to the forefront to drive the episode forward: whether it’s Pyxis being drunk, Sasha obsessing over food, Mikasa being strong, or Armin freaking out. And while this is quote-unquote “filler” that doesn’t bring us any closer to reaching the basement or smoking out traitors, capers like this can still be nice to just relax with these characters before the main show inevitably throws them back into hell. It also allows for some absolutely ludicrous situations that wouldn’t be possible in any other part of the show. The parts with Jean and his mom are alright, but probably nothing you haven’t seen before in other shows and for me, were largely overshadowed by this being the rare comedy episode of Attack on Titan (outside the Junior High spin-off of course). There is a small comedic pay-off to this OVA later on in the series so it’s best to watch The Sudden Visitor after season 1 so you’ll get that joke too, but otherwise I’d just recommend this episode in general as a breather from the struggle for survival against man-eating Titans.

Distress

The last of these initial OVAs is simply called Distress, initially bundled with tankobon volume 14 which was released in Japan in August 2014. The cadets are on a long-distance training mission in the field but as the cold-open suggests, not everything went as planned. A good portion of the episode focuses on Eren and Jean’s arguments caused by their fundamentally different drives as people, and it comes to a boiling point when the mission goes awry. Eren is all about fighting while Jean prioritizes safety, but eventually the cadets have to come together in order to save the day, culminating in a sense of comradery that can contribute to our understanding of these characters as we watch the rest of the show. The operation efficiently shows off several characters’ strongest suits, be it Eren’s determination, Armin’s knack for logical deduction, Sasha’s instincts, and even Krista’s compassion. However, while the characters’ actions and relationships are shown well in this episode, I just think the series did a good enough job establishing all that stuff already. But after all this is a side-story, and at the very least the characters introduced for this OVA shed some light on the life struggles for people in this world who don’t fight Titans, which is an appropriate setup for what subsequent OVAs will do. Not to mention, it still sports Attack on Titan‘s signature action animation and gives more screen time to a cadet who doesn’t have much in the series itself. If you liked the dynamic these characters share in the story then you might like Distress, but unfortunately that’s all I have to say about it.

No Regrets

OVAs 4 and 5 make up the two-parter called A Choice with No Regrets and focuses on Levi’s life in the lead-up to him joining the scouts. This is where things get a little tricky: No Regrets (and the remainder of these OVAs for that matter) began their lives as visual novels by Nitroplus that were bundled with certain Japanese blu-ray volumes of the Attack on Titan anime that came out all the way back in 2013. The two No Regrets OVAs were bundled with the 15th and 16th volumes of the main Attack on Titan manga respectively, which was well within the four year gap between seasons 1 and 2. As a result, most of the online watch order guides for Attack on Titan I found recommended watching No Regrets before season 2, as that reflects both its Japanese release date, and maybe how the visual novel was packaged with the season 1 Blu-rays. However, a couple of them actually recommend watching this two-parter after Season 3 Part 1 instead, and I think I understand why.

In the world of Attack on Titan, humanity lives behind walls Maria, Rose and Sina. However, there’s also an underground city which is new information when you come across it in the anime, but it’s not necessarily a plot twist. It’s presented as a very matter-of-fact exposition, likely because its real introduction was in No Regrets which had already debuted. The visual novels were supervised by Attack on Titan‘s original author, Hajime Isayama himself, so I think it’s safe to say he had already planned that part of the setting and made sure it was consistent with how he’d present it in the main series. I think it would be a shame to miss out on how this OVA portrays the underground city as it helps the Attack on Titan world feel more real. The younger Levi we meet there is still cold and efficient with both people and cleanliness, just like how we see him in the show. And while the more spoiler-filled parts of his backstory would come much later, we still get shown some key events that affected him here. Interestingly, he and his friends don’t get involved with the Scouts under the best of circumstances, which creates intrigue for how he would inevitably change into its champion. His relationship with Erwin is an instrumental part of this as he’s very much the man to teach us the meaning of the title, “No Regrets.”

Out of all the OVAs these two episodes had the most opportunities to show off excellent action animation with Levi’s expert ODM skills, combining impressive camera movement and elaborate effects animation. On the complete opposite side of things, somber moments are carried by understated vocals and acoustic guitar music, which suits a character like Levi who always plays things close to the vest. His harsh exterior makes it difficult to tell how he feels about the people in his life, but maybe this look into his past can help you understand him.

Wall Sina, Goodbye

The next visual novel adaptation is also a two-parter: OVAs 6 and 7 are Wall Sina, Goodbye. Like No Regrets, the source material was bundled with Blu-ray volume 6 on December 18th, 2013 and was actually written by Attack on Titan anime screenwriter Hiroshi Seko. Wall Sina, Goodbye would then become part of the Lost Girls novel along with the contents of Seko’s other Titan visual novel, Lost in the Cruel World. The two OVA episodes were bundled with the 24th (December 9th, 2017) and 25th (April 9th, 2018) volumes of the manga, making them the first ones that were released after season 2 of the anime and the four year break before it. It plays out like a mini detective mystery, with Annie Leonhardt having to trace information across various parts of town while using whatever means necessary to end negotiations in her favor, including her superior hand-to-hand combat skills. The case she’s investigating also explores how the Titan attack has affected this world on an economic level, along with more grim details that show just how cutthroat life is even among humans.

Annie herself is no exception to that, she doesn’t take this case for totally noble reasons nor does she go about it in the most moral fashion. However in a strange way, that’s also what humanizes her somewhat in this episode. Like in Ilse’s Notebook, we get a spoiler-safe preview of what drives Annie, why she’s such a lonely soul, and some slight cracks in her proverbial armor. Speaking of which, these OVAs should be watched after season 2 this time. Despite the original novel being packaged with the season 1 blu-rays, this anime adaptation adds specific content that makes it very clear it was made after season 2 aired, so be sure to get caught up to avoid getting spoiled.

Lost in the Cruel World

The eighth and final OVA based on the other visual novel written by Seko, is Lost in the Cruel World. As mentioned before, its story later became part of the Lost Girls novel along with Wall Sina, Goodbye, which then received a manga adaptation. The episode itself was bundled with tankobon volume 26 of the manga released in Japan on August 9th, 2018 which oddly enough came in the midst of season 3 part 1, in-between episodes 40 and 41. This is actually the one place that I and a majority of the online guides differ from the literal release order: wait until after Season 3 Part 1 (episode 49) to watch this last OVA. Much like Annie’s story, this adaptation frames the bulk of the story with content that came out after the original visual novel was created. Some scenes were almost directly lifted from episode 49 a couple of months before episode 49 even hit Japanese television. And while that seems roundabout, the manga readers who bought the special edition volume this OVA was bundled with were likely fully caught-up at the time. As a result of all this, the OVA version functions as a parallel universe within a flashback, which is a bit obtuse but it still manages to fit the theme of the story.

Without spoiling too much, we follow Mikasa as she lives a much more peaceful childhood with Eren this time. Initially it’s quite lighthearted and wholesome seeing a Mikasa who’s much more open with her feelings, but eventually this alternate world gets sharply contrasted with the one we’re familiar with, turning things bittersweet. Not everything is totally peaceful and not all of it is within Mikasa’s control either, which is what she has to accept by the end to return to reality. A butterfly has been used as a symbol in Attack on Titan and it shows up here several times as well with very direct purpose. The theme of Lost in the Cruel World is the same regardless of where in the overall story the anime decided to place it, and in fact the way Mikasa recalls all this neatly foreshadows what’s to come in the later episodes anyway. Perhaps that was a nice coincidence or perhaps it speaks to the strength of the writing.

To quickly recap, the release order of Attack on Titan with the OVAs goes as follows: Season 1, Ilse’s Notebook, The Sudden Visitor, Distress, No Regrets, Season 2, Wall Sina, Goodbye, the first 3 episodes of Season 3 Part 1, Lost in the Cruel World, the rest of Season 3 Part 1, Season 3 Part 2, then the three parts of The Final Season. And the only adjustment I would make to this is to move Lost in the Cruel World to after the end of Season 3 Part 1. You could probably consider the order of the OVAs between seasons 1 and 2 interchangeable if you wanted as all those stories work on their own, but that’s where I’m going to leave it today. There is other Attack on Titan side-story content that hasn’t been adapted as anime yet. But with everyone hotly anticipating the third part of The Final Season next year, I’d wager we’ll be waiting a while to see if any other OVAs actually end up getting produced.

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