Entertainment

Suspect in Japan animation studio arson had grudge, witnesses and local media say

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.

Death toll rises to 34 after man succumbs to injuries in hospital

The man suspected of setting ablaze at a beloved animation studio in Kyoto, Japan earlier this week held a grudge against the company, according to witnesses and local media reports. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

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 hospitalized 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 on Saturday after one of the injured died in hospital. Aoba was meanwhile transferred to another hospital specializing in treating burns. Footage showed medics carrying Aoba on a stretcher, connected to multiple tubes with 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.

A woman prays Friday to honour the victims of Thursday's fire, which has killed 34 people. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

Kyoto prefectural police chief Hideto Ueda solemnly laid flowers at the site, now a charcoal shell, vowing the investigation would find the motives behind the attack, which he described as "unprecedented and unforgivable."

Series of high-profile killings in recent years

While shooting deaths are rare in Japan, the country has had a series of high-profile killings in recent years. Less than two months ago, a man described as a social recluse, or "hikikomori," stabbed a number of private school children at a bus stop outside Tokyo, killing two people and wounding 17 before killing himself. In 2016, a former employee at a home for the disabled allegedly killed 19 people and injured more than 20.

Nobuo Komiya, a Rissho University criminology professor, calls the attacks "suicidal terrorism," in which attackers typically see themselves as losers and target their anger on society.

"Feeling angry at people who they think are winners, they tend to choose privileged people as targets," Komiya said. "They think they have nothing to lose, they don't care if they get caught or if they die."

They are part of a growing trend in the Japanese society, where disparities are growing and ties among families, community and other groups have weakened. People feel less obligated to follow the rules and be part of it, he said.

"Japan shouldn't be complacent about its safety anymore. We should follow the U.S. and Europe and do more for risk management."

An anime cartoon drawing is laid amongst flowers and tributes near the Kyoto Animation Co. studio building. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

About 70 people were working inside the three-storey 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 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 say.

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 police officers 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 recount disturbing interactions with suspect

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 Friday and joined police investigators. "I can hardly bear to see this," Hatta said.

A fan of Kyoto Animation cries as she visits the area near the studio's building in Kyoto on Friday. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

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 North American theatres and a Winnie the Pooh video.

It is Japan's deadliest fire since 2001, when a blaze in Tokyo's congested Kabukicho entertainment district killed 44 people in the country's worst known case of arson in modern times. Police called the cause arson, but never announced an arrest in the setting of the blaze, though five people were convicted of negligence.

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