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Japan cops: Anime studio fire was 'arson attack'

Tokyo—The horrifying fire at a renowned anime firm which killed dozens in Kyoto is being treated as arson and murder, Japanese police have said, with scores of detectives investigating the deadliest violent crime for decades in the famously safe country.

The blaze on Thursday killed 34 people and wounded dozens more at Kyoto Animation—well known among fans across the world for its animations of popular manga works—and left anime fans and insiders shocked and heartbroken.

In a rare move, Kyoto police on Friday identified the 41-year-old man suspected of starting the inferno as Shinji Aoba. Japanese authorities usually wait for the formal arrest of a suspect before releasing such details.

“We have determined that this is an arson attack... and murder,” a senior police officer told a press conference.

Aoba is in serious condition and has burns all over his body. He has been moved to a special facility for treatment, a Kyoto police officer told AFP.

As firefighters struggled to control the blaze and locate survivors on Thursday, a man presumed to be Aoba was spotted lying on a bench at a park some 500 meters (1,600 feet) from the studio, Jiji Press reported, citing a nearby resident who said the man seemed to be asleep.

Police suspect that Aoba may have stayed at the park for several days to secretly inspect the studio, Jiji added.

Local media said Aoba had served three and a half years in prison for stealing cash from a convenience store. Police have said the suspect’s profession was unknown.

People continued to pay tribute to the victims on Saturday, leaving flowers in front of the building that housed Kyoto Animation. Eyewitnesses described the inferno as “hell”, and anime fans likened it to a terror attack on their community.

Founded in 1981, Kyoto Animation might lack the name recognition of Studio Ghibli, but to anime fans it is a household name, responsible for beloved television series like “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”.

Some media reports have suggested Aoba believed the company had stolen his work.

But the president of Kyoto Animation said Saturday the company had never received a submission from him, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported. 

The devastating apparent arson attack on the renowned Japanese animation firm has left anime fans and insiders heartbroken, with many likening the fire to a terror attack on their community.

The inferno that ripped through Kyoto Animation on Thursday killed 34 people and wounded dozens more at a firm that has delighted fans across the world with its animations of popular manga works.

“Kyoto Animation is home to some of the world’s most talented animators and dreamers,” Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted after the attack.

“KyoAni artists spread joy all over the world and across generations with their masterpieces.”

Founded in 1981, Kyoto Animation might lack the name recognition of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, but to anime fans it is a household name, responsible for beloved television series including “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya” and “K-ON!”

“They made amazing films. I was heartbroken,” said James Coleman, a 17-year-old tourist walking in Tokyo’s famed anime and gaming district Akihabara on Friday.

“I was really shocked, and I was confused as to why anyone would attack a place like Kyoto Animation.”

While many animation studios are based in Tokyo, the firm -- known by fans as KyoAni -- reportedly felt strongly about remaining in the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto.

Its work often featured elaborate shots described as “KyoAni quality” by enthusiastic fans.

“All we can do is remember the work they created,” said French tourist Mederic Theys.

After the fire, anime fans at home and abroad tweeted their support with the hashtag #KyoAniStrong and #PrayForKyoAni.

The motive for the attack remained unclear a day after the devastating blaze. Police have detained a 41-year-old man, with reports suggesting he had accused Kyoto Animation of plagiarism.

Initial speculation had focused on whether a disgruntled employee could be involved, in an industry infamous for underpaying and overworking its artists.

“It’s like a domestic terrorist attack,” said Aaron Law, a tourist from New Zealand, also in Akihabara.

Manga artist Junichi Inoue, author of “Diary of a Chinese Wife”, said he feared the trauma from the attack could cripple creativity among artists in the industry, himself included.

“These 33 lives created extraordinary work,” he told AFP before another victim died in hospital raising the toll to 34.

“We must not bend to it. It would be losing in the face of a kind of terrorism,” he added.

Ryusuke Hikawa, a professor at Tokyo’s Meiji University and a specialist in animation, also expressed hope that the attack would not cow the industry, where threats against artists are not uncommon.

“We must not bow in the face of violence,” he told AFP.

“Kyoto Animation and others must continue to produce animations with a message.”

Founded by a husband-wife couple, Kyoto Animation originally specialized in delicate animation tasks usually done by women and continued to employ many women among its staff.

And unlike many in the sector, it had a reputation as a generous employer, said Hikawa.

“The working conditions were known to be very good, with the staff very well treated in an industry where we often work late into the night,” he said.

Anime and manga are among Japan’s best known modern cultural exports and form a key plank of the country’s plans to grow its tourism industry.

Would-be artists flock to the country hoping to find work in the sector, and Japanese anime films are regularly nominated for Oscars.

Henry Thurlow, an American animator and director in Japan, said he was horrified by the news.

“That this crime happened in Japan, and that this crime happened to this small community of artists, who are among the hardest working people in the world, was quite shocking,” he told AFP.

“It’s an attack on every person working in this industry. We all know each other,” he added.

“The fear and trauma stemming from this attack is going to affect a lot of people for a very long time.” 

Topics: Japan , Fire , Arson , Kyoto Animation , Shinji Aoba , Aaron Law
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