I am a Political Science graduate, major in International Relations and Foreign Service, with an interest in anime, religion and philosophy
"Brave Volunteers" is framed with much intent towards a culture of dialogue. However, behind the idealism of such a discourse is a reality shared by our world and the story of Attack on Titan. Such a culture requires so much time for trust to be built.
The episode is presented from start to finish as Armin's recounting of the alliance made with Yelena's Volunteers and the possibility that there could have been another way. Armin has always been the series narrator, but this is rightly implemented as he shares his story and worries to someone he cares about.
A ship approaches, holding Marley's scouts. Suddenly, they were brought up by the massive Attack Titan and brought to shore. An energetic Hange greets the crew while Eren stands over them. Shots were fired and treason was committed. Yelena and her volunteers join hands with the Scouts, revealing their allegiance to Zeke Yeager.
The interaction between Yelena, Hange, and Levi also highlights how important it was for Paradis to show a strong front so as to avoid being looked down upon. This fits well with how it was later shown that all of the Pure Titans were already killed by the Scouts. What was once a dream or milestone now feels like a minor event.
Religion and the Beauty of Diversity
A personal favorite part of the episode comes courtesy of Onyakopon and his view of race. Sasha asked in bewilderment why Onyakopon has a different skin color from everyone else she knew. Rather than be taken aback by the sudden question, Onyakopon explains that there was a creator who wanted everyone to look different. He further strengthens his point by saying that the creator even wanted people to be born. Armin and the rest were surprised by his explanation, with the former wondering who would have such an intention to make humanity. Onyakopon then connects the creator to God, the being that gave the Eldian founder Ymir her power.
The others were stunned by the view Onyakopon held for different reasons. For one, most of the people of Paradis did not subscribe to a theistic worldview, even as they live in a world dominated by monsters. Because of this, they would not believe that a God would want them to be born, only for them to be eaten by Titans by the end. Most of all, they were surprised there were other people in the world that thought this openly. It makes sense they were in disbelief as they assumed everyone hated Eldians. This framework applied by Onyakopon gave an equally favorable view of Eldians as it would have done for other races. Did this world experience waves of countering discrimination against other ethnic groups and races in their past? Who knows? And Onyakopon was the right mouthpiece for this idea.
This was a beautiful discourse of race that makes sense for the plot and to express a more open worldview. Religion is given a more positive framing and is used to show the beauty of a pluralistic world where different people come together as children of the same creator. It especially hits hard when Onyakopon says that everyone is meant to be born, contributing to the series' discourse of life, that there is value in everyone being born in this world.
Love Over Food
An underrated contribution of the episode is the introduction of Niccolo. He may not seem relevant to the story at first but as a Marleyean held captive in Paradis for years, he begins to experience a new kind of life with the people he once discriminated. This bond begins as he serves food as a chef. Sasha takes a liking to his dishes and tearfully thanks him for the experience. Sasha loves food and her enjoyment over Niccolo's cooking both surprised him and changed him. This was the first tangible sign of Marleyeans seeing the good in the people they despised, a possibility that there are ways to connect with people outside of war and politics.
We see him back in the present day mourning over her death. You could reflect on Sasha's last words to reflect more than her love for food. After all, the one who was cooking for her was Niccolo.
Buying Peace In a Limited Time
The highlight of the episode has to be the conversation between Eren, Mikasa and Armin. While Onyakopon gave us the beauty of diversity, Eren and Armin concern themselves with the reality that diversity is barely viewed with such openness.
Armin insists that there might be time to change the biases of the world but Eren notes that they had every reason to fear Eldians. While it is terrible to judge people for what they have not done, the horror of the Titans is something both Paradis and the world relate to, and knowing that only Eldians can become Titans immediately breaks any hope for harmony. This may not always apply to the real world but stigmatizing ethnic or religious groups based on the violence committed by people who identify with them is a reality we contend with.
Mikasa, however, sees the seeds of peace planted. The Marleyeans that were kept on the island gradually warmed up to the Eldians. Eren points out they were still prisoners. Ever optimistic, Mikasa notes that with time, they can all come around. However, both Armin and Eren agree that they lack the time. By provoking fear with a demonstration of the devastating Rumbling, Paradis can deter future attacks, at least for a time. This does show that Attack on Titan understands that people change but that change cannot work overnight nor can it be done large-scale so easily.
Armin concludes the story, revealing that he was in the room where a crystallized Annie was held. Now understanding Bertholdt's feelings, Armin realizes that they have set themselves towards a more violent path after all. Deep down, he wished that Annie would respond to him, to ease the pain of his own killing of innocents and uncertainty of whether there was another way or not.
To Fight or to Die
Whatever the case, we cut to the episode's final lines, with Mikasa mourning behind Sasha's grave and reminding herself of the need to fight in order to survive. This was the same drive that pushed her to kill her assailants and save Eren. At the same time, they are now seeing that the only way for their loved ones to keep moving towards peace is to fight. Having long dreaded this outcome upon seeing the ocean and the visions associated with it, Eren accepts the choice to fight, looking deeply at his reflection, yet deeply wishing there was another way.
The episode was directed with a lot of care to the way these events matter to the overall story, from the water present throughout appearing almost real to the detail in characters' eyes. Character animation and visuals were top-notch. The use of the Titans in this episode was handled well, with Eren's Attack Titan model being more menacing than it appeared in the manga version courtesy of MAPPA's more cinematic and realistic lighting.
Expect more of this quality for the upcoming War on Paradis arc and perhaps some of the greatest moments in anime history.