Suspected Arson at Kyoto Animation Studio Kills 33, Shocking Japan
TOKYO — The attacker was heard screaming “Die!” as he ignited the liquid he had splashed around an anime studio in Japan.
Within minutes the studio, Kyoto Animation, was a scene of horror: a man hanging from a ledge as flames licked the walls; a pile of bodies on a staircase leading to the roof; a barefoot woman so badly burned that all a bystander could do was spray her with water and wait for help.
By the time the fire was doused, 33 people had died and three dozen had been injured, shocking a nation considered one of the world’s safest. The blaze appeared to be its worst mass killing in decades, and prompted a global outpouring of grief, especially among fans of anime — a school of animation that has become synonymous with Japan.
The attack shook a country still reeling from a stabbing rampage in a Tokyo suburb just weeks ago. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the latest attack left him “at a loss for words.”
Although Japan has a very low rate of violent crime, there are eruptions of rare but extremely violent attacks.
In May, a man stabbed 17 schoolgirls, killing one of them and an adult.
In 1995, members of a doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, carried out a nerve-gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system, killing 13 people and injuring thousands.
And in 2016, a mass stabbing at a center for people with disabilities outside the city became the worst massacre in Japan since World War II.
The death toll of the Kyoto fire was higher than in any of those attacks, and nearly rivaled that of a fire in 2001 that killed 44 people in a crowded gambling club in Tokyo’s entertainment district. That fire was investigated as possible arson, but the authorities could not confirm that it had been deliberately set.
For the Japanese public, the Kyoto fire touched a nerve, and many poured out their grief on social media: The hashtag #prayforKyoAni was circulated hundreds of thousands of times online.
The studio has produced popular shows and movies, among them “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya,” “K-On” and “Clannad,” and has done contract work for the world-famous anime company Studio Ghibli.
There was little known Thursday about the man believed to have set the fire or his motives. The Kyoto police described him only as a 41-year-old man, and NHK, the public broadcaster, said he had been detained and hospitalized with burns.
Citing the Kyoto police, the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest mainstream dailies, reported that the man had entered the building screaming “Die!” and then tried to escape, but collapsed on the street outside. He was captured by members of the studio’s staff.
The cultural reaction to Thursday’s fire reflected Kyoto Animation’s popularity among fans of anime, the genre of Japanese cartooning that is common in the country’s popular culture and one of its major soft-power exports.
Kyoto Animation — known as KyoAni among its fans — was founded by Yoko Hatta and her husband, Hideaki Hatta, in 1981, and most of the studio’s production takes place in the building that was the site of Thursday’s fire.
Unlike most major anime studios, which are based in Tokyo, Kyoto Animation chose to build its operations in another regional hub, a city admired for its historical beauty and a popular destination for tourists.
The devastation at the studio, said fans, would rip a hole in the anime world.
“Will it come across to people who are not familiar with anime that the fire at Kyoto Animation studio is ‘a loss of culture,’ as if museums get destroyed by fire in an instant?” one wrote on Twitter.
Kyoto Animation distinguished itself by paying its workers salaries, rather than by assigning piecework, as many other studios do, said Susan Napier, an expert on Japanese animation at Tufts University.
塔夫茨大学(Tufts University)日本动画专家苏珊·纳皮尔(Susan Napier)说，京都动画公司的特别之处是给员工发工资，而不是像其他许多工作室那样按件付酬。
“You’re usually overworked and underpaid and just killing yourself to get the product out,” said Ms. Napier, “but Kyoto Animation was trying to be a more humane company.”
She said the studio was known for its high-quality series, combining science-fiction or fantasy elements with realistic plotlines and settings in high schools or real cities in Japan.
With roots going back to the early 20th century, anime has attracted an international following through artists like Hayao Miyazaki, whose feature “Spirited Away” won an Oscar in 2003, and Makoto Shinkai, whose movie “Your Name” was a global phenomenon, particularly in China.
Mr. Shinkai expressed support for the Kyoto Animation staff on Thursday. “Everyone at Kyoto Animation, stay safe,” he wrote on Twitter, before the extent of the tragedy was clear.
“My heart is in extreme pain,” Mr. Hatta, the company president, said Thursday, The Associated Press reported. “Why on earth did such violence have to be used?”
As the death toll was still rising, Prime Minister Abe, too, spoke out.
“Today, we had many casualties in a fatal arson attack that happened in Kyoto,” he wrote on Twitter. “It is so horrifying that I am at a loss for words. I’d like to express my deepest condolences to the victims. I offer my thoughts to those who have been wounded and pray for their recovery.”
Witnesses who spoke to Japanese news outlets described grim scenes near the studio.
According to The Mainichi Shimbun, a large daily, a woman in her 60s who lives near the building said she had seen a young woman, her entire body burned, screaming and running into a nearby shop, begging for help. The young woman was bleeding, her clothing torn and her feet bare, the witness said.
“It took a long time until the ambulance arrived,” she told The Mainichi. “All I could do was to spray water over her under the fire department’s instruction.”
According to NHK, the police are investigating a report by a clerk at a gas station, about a quarter mile from the studio, who said a man in his 30s or 40s, wearing a red T-shirt and a backpack, bought about 10 gallons of gas at 10 a.m. Thursday. The man carried away the two gas cans on a hand cart, saying he would use them in a power generator, the broadcaster reported.
The Kyoto City Fire Department said 20 people had been found dead on the third floor of the building, some lying on top of one another on a staircase leading to the rooftop, according to news reports.
When rescuers reached the roof, the door was closed, though not locked.