Suspect in Japan anime studio arson reportedly had grudge

TOKYO (AP) – The man suspected of setting ablaze a beloved Japanese animation studio, killing 34 people, was raging about theft and witnesses and media reported he had a grudge against the company, as questions arose why such mass killings keep happening in the country.

Police only have said the suspect Shinji Aoba, 41, who is hospitalised with severe burns and unable to talk, is from near Tokyo and did not work for the studio, Kyoto Animation.

Japanese broadcaster NHK said the death toll rose to 34 yesterday after one of the injured died in a hospital. Aoba was meanwhile transferred to another hospital specialising in treating burns.

Footage showed medics carrying Aoba on a stretcher, connected to multiple tubes and part of his exposed skin swollen and pink.

NHK and other media, quoting an unnamed source, said that Aoba spent three and a half years in prison for robbing a convenience store in 2012 and lived on government support.

The man told police that he set the fire because he thought “(Kyoto Animation) stole novels,” according to Japanese media. It was unclear if he had contacted the studio earlier.

The company founded in 1981 and better known as KyoAni made a mega-hit anime series about high school girls and trained aspirants to the craft.

The shocking attack left another 34 people injured, some critically. It drew an outpouring of grief for the dead and injured, most of them workers at the studio. Kyoto Prefectural Police Chief Hideto Ueda solemnly laid flowers at the site, now a charcoal shell, vowing for the utmost in the investigation to find motives behind the attack, which he described as “unprecedented and unforgivable.”

People pay respects at a makeshift memorial site in front of the gutted Kyoto Animation Studio building in Japan. – AP

About 70 people were working inside the three-story Kyoto Animation No 1 studio in southern Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, at the time of the attack.

The arsonist arrived carrying two containers of flammable liquid. He shouted, “You die!” as he entered the studio’s unlocked front door, dumped the liquid using a bucket, and set it afire with a lighter, police said, quoting witnesses.

Police at the scene confiscated the gasoline tanks, a knapsack and knives, but have not confirmed they belonged to the attacker. A Kyoto police official declined to speculate how Aoba prepared the attack, saying he wanted the man to explain himself, as well as his motives.

The blaze blocked the front door and quickly engulfed the workspace, rising up the stairs to the third floor, sending panicked employees fleeing. Some were able to escape by crawling out of windows, with the help of neighbours. Many tried but failed to escape to the roof, fire officials said. Most of the victims are believed to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning, experts said.

The suspect fled but was chased by studio employees who eventually caught him. He collapsed to the ground outside a house and was quickly surrounded by police.

“They are always stealing. It’s their fault,” he told policemen bending over and asking him why he set the fire, according to a witness who described the scene outside her house. The man complained bitterly that something had been stolen from him, the witness told NHK and other networks.

Neighbours interviewed by Japanese media said the suspect had troubles with other residents in the apartment building in Saitama, north of Tokyo, where he lived.

One man told the broadcaster TBS that he had knocked on Aoba’s door to ask him to stop banging on the walls. He said Aoba shouted “I will kill you!” and “Shut up!” then grabbed him by the hair and shirt.

Studio President Hideaki Hatta was stunned as he entered the site for the first time since the attack on Friday and joined police investigators. “I can hardly bear to see this,” Hatta said.

Construction worker Takumi Yoshida, 23, was a fan of KyoAni works. “I am shocked and I’m sure for their families it must be very difficult. So with those feelings in my mind, I brought flowers,” Yoshida said.

Anime fan and university student Yuki Seki travelled from nearby Hyogo prefecture to pay her respects. “After properly recovering while taking their time, I hope Kyoto Animation can once again share their power and energy with us,” she said.

Kyoto Animation’s hits include Lucky Star of 2008, K-On! in 2011 and Haruhi Suzumiya in 2009. It has an upcoming feature film, Violet Evergarden, about a woman who professionally writes letters for clients.

It’s also done secondary animation work on a 1998 Pokemon feature that appeared in United States (US) theatres and a Winnie the Pooh video.