As OVAs go, this was a pretty good one. It was plot-relevant for starters, which is rare-enough, though the fact that Attack on Titan is an ongoing series has something to do with that. It was also competently written and directed, not surprising given that it’s based on a special manga chapter, though the animation was a considerable step down from most of the TV episodes. Of course it’s merely adding yet more questions to the pile without providing any answers, but that’s pretty much what AoT is all about. I sometimes think Isayama-sensei actually doesn’t have any answers to all these conspiracies he’s laying out, and he’s laughing his ass off as he cashes the checks.
I’m going to assume what happened in “Ilse’s Journal” is going to be important later on, or else Isayama wouldn’t have bothered to include the chapter – it sure feels that way. The Ilse in question is Ilse Langnar (Kokuryu Sachi), and it’s her diary that Hanji finds during the 45th expedition outside the walls by the Recon Corps (which takes place sometime in the recent past, as Levi is a corporal at the time). Ilse wrote it during the 34th expedition, which we’re told took place in the year prior to the 45th. Of the familiar faces we can see very little change – they all act exactly as they will later in the series, which means Hanji is still entertainingly unhinged, and obsessed enough with capturing a titan alive that she frequently puts the lives of her teammates at risk (when she’s not doing that by choking them) in the process.
By far the more compelling narrative here is that of Ilse herself, seen in flashback-in-a-flashback form as Hanji reads the diary she found next to a tree, inside which was Ilse’s headless skeleton. Hanji is led straight to this tree by a six-meter class titan who, after chasing her on horseback (Hanji, not the titan) for a while, turns tail and flees back into the forest and starts banging its head on the aforementioned tree. Ilse herself is a young Recon Corps soldier who’s lost her entire outfit and – even more crucially in this context – her horse. That means she’s basically a dead woman walking in titan country, though she bravely decides to record everything that happens during her hopeless attempt to flee back to the Wall. Her bleak and terrifying saga is brief but it makes an impact, not just through the diary (which persuades Erwin to allow Hanji to try and capture a titan(s) alive) but in dramatic terms too.
The headline here in the big picture is that titan, which actually speaks to Ilse – it seems to call her “Ymir-sama” – and bows to her, though it either can’t or won’t answer any of Ilse’s frantic questions. Eventually she flees in a panic when the titan responds to her screaming accusations by trying to rip its own face off, which seems to trigger the titan’s compulsion to be a titan, and it chases, catches and kills her by biting her head off. Dutifully, Ilse records her thoughts quite literally to the last moment, but what this information tells us about the conspiracy plot is going to have to wait until the second season – if then, and whenever there’s enough manga for that to happen. Given that this same titan is later killed by Levi it seems safe to assume it didn’t have a human inside controlling it, but there’s obviously a history with humans which caused it to behave differently than every other titan we’ve seen in the series. For now, all this is just more interesting but frustrating mystery to chew on – and that’s what Shingeki no Kyoujin does best.