Tragedy in an Animation Utopia: Horror, Heartbreak and Mystery After an Arson Massacre
The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Tragedy in an Animation Utopia: Horror, Heartbreak and Mystery After an Arson Massacre

Kyoto Animation was a beloved cornerstone of Japan’s booming $2 billion anime industry when a deranged man attempted to burn it all down, resulting in the country's worst act of mass murder since World War II. But why? In his first in-depth interview since the July attack, the company's founder opens up about his shock, despair and will to bounce back: "As long as we have one person, we will keep going."

Around 10:30 a.m. on July 18, a disheveled, heavyset man wearing a red T-shirt and jeans arrived at the quiet entrance of a three-story yellow building in Uji, a serene suburb of Japan's historic city of Kyoto. Inside were some 70 employees of one of the country's most beloved entertainment companies, Kyoto Animation, or KyoAni, as it was affectionately known to fans. Pushing through the building's unlocked front doors, the man toppled over a large bucket of gasoline he had hauled inside with him. Then he flicked a lighter and screamed, "Die!"

Within 10 seconds of the initial explosion, the building's first floor was a furnace burning at 957 degrees Fahrenheit. Within 20 seconds, the second floor was fully ablaze. Windows on the third floor fell off 25 seconds later. In less than a minute, toxic black coils of smoke of more than 200 degrees had filled every corner of the building's uppermost reaches.

The fire burned relentlessly for five hours and wasn't completely extinguished until the next morning. The interior of Studio One, as the building was known, was eviscerated, with only a warped and charred shell remaining. By that evening, rescue workers had collected the bodies of 33 employees. Dozens more were treated for injuries, many of them severe. In the following weeks, three more victims would succumb to their wounds, bringing the eventual death toll to 36. There had been other deadly fires in Japan in which arson was suspected, but this would mark the nation's largest act of mass murder since the end of World War II.

In the midst of the fire's chaos that morning, a neighbor who lived directly across from Studio One came to the aid of the large man, sprawled on the street and visibly burned, who had emerged from the building's front entrance. The woman had just begun gently spraying his wounds with the cool water of a garden hose when he clambered back to his feet and stumbled toward a courtyard leading out to a busy street. Two KyoAni employees who also had made it outside the burning building began sprinting after him. They tackled him and held him to the ground. "They plagiarized my work!" the man shouted, as the police began to intervene. He demanded to speak to the "company president."

***

Kyoto Animation CEO Hideaki Hatta had spent most of that morning preparing for an 11 a.m. business meeting with Japanese broadcaster NHK, for which his company had done some work in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Paralympics. NHK wanted to capture some footage of the KyoAni animators at work for promotional material; the taping would take place in Studio One. Just after 10:30, as Hatta was wrapping up a meeting at Studio Five, another of KyoAni's several local offices, he received a call on his cellphone informing him that a fire had broken out.

"I didn't think much of this news," says Hatta, 69, speaking about the fire at length for the first time since the attack. A compact man with salt-and-pepper hair and a disarming, crooked smile, Hatta is energetic and brisk in the manner of a self-made entrepreneur. He often carries a sheaf of folders and papers close to his chest and frequently consults a small green notebook. The caller hadn't seemed particularly alarmed about the fire, and Studio One was a nonsmoking building, so Hatta assumed something small had set off a smoke alarm. He went on ahead, expecting the usual busy day of meetings.

Hatta and his wife, Yoko, had founded Kyoto Animation in 1981. From humble beginnings as a small production-services company, it had grown into one of Japan's most successful studios. With more than 200 employees, KyoAni still was small by the standards of Tokyo's flagship studios, but, like a far-flung, family-run version of Pixar, it had won improbable acclaim for its expressive style and nuanced storytelling.

By 2018, anime had become a $2 billion industry in Japan, and one of the country’s major soft power exports. In an April 2015 speech, President Obama mentioned it as one of the country's key contributions to world culture, along with karaoke and karate. On the day of the fire, Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted that "Kyoto Animation is home to some of the world's most talented animators and dreamers" and that the attack was "a tragedy felt far beyond Japan."

In recent years, KyoAni productions — including the hit TV series The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, about a brilliant high school girl with supernatural powers, and Violet Evergarden, the tale of a former soldier who's seeking meaning in her postwar life and which was purchased by Netflix in 2018 — garnered critical acclaim and cultivated a passionate international fan base. KyoAni was behind such hit series for young adults as Lucky Star and Free! as well as more emotionally challenging film projects like A Silent Voice, about a suicidal teen attempting to make amends with a deaf classmate he had bullied, which earned about $30 million at Japan's box office. "They didn't do sex or violence," says Daisuke Okeda, an attorney and spokesman for KyoAni. Most of these "slice of life" stories focused on friendship and honesty, but they did so with the stated intention of bringing hope to the sadness of existence, a more nuanced perspective than was sometimes typical of the genre. "They believed the world was filled with tragedy," says Okeda.

"KyoAni helped make anime into an art form for the masses," says Makoto Shinkai, director of 2017's Your Name, Japan's most successful anime of the past decade with $358 million at the global box office. "Typical high school students and adult professionals who aren't hard-core fans now watch anime casually at home, sing anime theme songs at karaoke, buy merchandise around town," Shinkai explains. "KyoAni helped create this culture and changed a whole generation's behavior — its work had that kind of power."

Despite its centrality to Japan's popular identity, the anime industry has always had a darker side — studios known for punishing hours, exploitative conditions with few or no benefits and a workforce that many employers view as disposable. Companies that violate Japan's labor laws in this way are referred to as burakku kigyō, or "black corporations," and Tokyo's anime world is notorious for them. Freelancers, compensated by the frame, move quickly from one project to the next. But from its earliest days, KyoAni deliberately offered a marked alternative, earning a reputation for corporate decency.

The Hattas met in Kyoto in 1975, married shortly after and had three children before deciding that they wanted to go into business for themselves. Over many conversations, they settled on animation: Yoko had worked in the coloring department of a prominent Tokyo studio, and they saw that the field was rapidly expanding. But it also was a top-heavy industry, with costly production methods. Artists at Tokyo's major studios would draw hundreds of images, called cels, and ship them off to Korea or China, where they were colored in by low-wage workers. The Hattas wanted to cut out the middlemen by bringing this outsourced labor to the many available workers in Kyoto and the surrounding Kansai region.

They placed ads in the newspapers of nearby Osaka, Japan's second-largest city, seeking unskilled staff whom they could educate in the very basics of animation production. "We Teach Painting," the ads read. The applicants, like Mihoko Kouda, who was hired in 1983, were largely housewives of the baby boomer generation, busy raising children but also eager to participate in Japan's growing economy.

Growing up on a farm in Japan’s Fukui Prefecture, a coastal region to the northeast of Kyoto, Hatta was surrounded by elders who spent long days in the rice paddies. “To make rice, you have to prepare the ground, plow and apply water, fertilize, plant, and then harvest,” he said, “[Kyoto Animation] aims to put an importance on growing good people.”

The Hattas allowed mothers like Kouda to work from home, virtually unheard of in Japan at the time. They also insisted on reasonable working hours, from 9 to 6, and encouraged communication between departments — practices unimaginable among Tokyo's regimented major studios. More than 30 years later, Kouda still works at KyoAni. The Hattas hired her daughter in 2014.

For all its inward warmth, KyoAni was perceived by outsiders to be secretive; the Hattas almost never granted interviews, always insisting that the studio's work should speak for itself. But over the years, enough about KyoAni's culture had leaked out to create a singular impression among the Japanese anime community — a pocket of professional utopia hidden away in historic, sophisticated Kyoto.

Three weeks before the fire, Yoshiji Kigami, 61, one of KyoAni's most respected animators who had been with the company for more than two decades, spoke at a morning meeting about what he understood to be the company ethos, noting that "work isn't everything" but that while they were at the office, those at KyoAni should support one another and "make the most of simply being here right now by creating the best work we can."

The hub of much of KyoAni's creative output was Studio One. From outside, the building was unassuming, a rectangular block with large windows and a rooftop balcony. But the interior was tranquil, with a spa-like atmosphere. Warm blond wood lined the walls, and straw tatami mats were spread out in a corner where employees were invited to rest, stretch or gather for brainstorming sessions. The central feature of the building was a spiral staircase that curled down from the third floor and spilled into the lobby, a creative lifeline connecting departments and people.

***

Four days before the fire and 283 miles away, in the working-class Tokyo suburb of Saitama, an electronics company employee, Mr. Matsumoto (who declined to provide his first name out of privacy concerns), was enjoying a quiet Sunday morning at home. It was July 14, the second day of a three-day weekend, and Matsumoto, a 27-year-old quality control official, was watching a video game live stream on YouTube. Suddenly, loud banging erupted in the apartment above; it sounded like furniture being assembled. Moments later, another neighbor who lived next door, in apartment 104, began pounding on his wall. That's when Matsumoto says he felt his stomach tighten.

The resident of 104, 41-year-old Shinji Aoba, wasn't very neighborly. Matsumoto had greeted him the first time they crossed paths a couple of years earlier, but Aoba had ignored him. Ever since, Matsumoto had tried to keep his distance. Aoba was unkempt, with messy, ungroomed facial hair. He often wore the same clothes several days in a row. "He smelled terrible," Matsumoto says. "Really, really bad. I'm sure restaurants wouldn't let him in because of the way he smelled."

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Aoba also was rude. Around midday on most days, he blasted loud music through a large speaker. It was a stretch to call it music — more like the synthetic tones used in video games when characters plodded across open expanses, a bland filler soundtrack that had no beginning and no end. Matsumoto had heard it enough to determine that what Aoba was playing was a five- or six-second repeating loop. Around midnight, he often played what Matsumoto could only describe as "noise," a grating metallic drone that sounded roughly like a train roaring over tracks.

Sometimes, also late at night, Matsumoto spotted Aoba hauling a high-end road bike out of the apartment for rides along the desolate Saitama streets. When the noise from Aoba's apartment overwhelmed him, Matsumoto called the police, by his count half a dozen times over the previous two years. After they visited, Aoba would quiet down for a week, maybe a few, and then the noise would start up again.

When Aoba started pounding on his wall in apartment 104 that Sunday, Matsumoto was prepared for his usual unpleasantness. The clatter from above had continued. Aoba emerged, pummeled Matsumoto's front door and then, getting no response, retreated to his apartment, where he continued to bang on their shared wall. Eventually, sensing no resolution and feeling fed up, Matsumoto knocked on Aoba's door, lifted the metal mail slot and shouted in, "It's not me making the noise, it's the upstairs neighbors." The irony of Aoba, of all people, suddenly expressing outrage over a minor noise incident wasn't lost on him.

From his room, Aoba began throwing things against the wall they shared, hard. In an instant, both men were outside again. Aoba grabbed Matsumoto by the collar of his shirt and his hair. "You're too loud, shut up!" he fumed. "I'm going to kill you!" Matsumoto protested: The noise hadn't come from his apartment. "It's irrelevant," Aoba spat back. "You're annoying. I'll kill you. I have nothing to lose."

Eventually Aoba let him go. Badly shaken, Matsumoto felt scared to remain at home and walked directly to the police station to file a report. During their confrontation, Matsumoto had gotten a close look at Aoba's eyes, which, as he put it later, looked "insane." Matsumoto spent the rest of the weekend with his parents, looking online for a new place to live.

After assaulting Matsumoto, Aoba abruptly left Saitama. On Monday, July 15, he took the high-speed bullet train to Kyoto and checked in to a downtown hotel, not far from the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that draw millions of tourists to the city each year. The next morning, Aoba headed toward Kyoto's hilly suburbs of Uji, where KyoAni's studios were located. CCTV footage picked him up at various points along the way, including at an internet cafe south of Kyoto Station. That night he stayed in another nearby hotel.

On Wednesday, still wearing the jeans and red T-shirt he'd worn when assaulting Matsumoto, Aoba walked into a hardware store and bought a metal trolley. He wheeled the contraption six miles north, lumbering occasionally along the banks of the Uji River. That afternoon he stopped at an Eneos gas station and purchased 10 gallons of gasoline divided into two red, plastic containers, which he loaded on the trolley. He crossed a set of train tracks to Momoyama Funadomari Park, a desolate patch of dirt under a highway overpass with a lonely swing set. Aoba lay down on the only bench, canisters beside him.

***

The morning of the fire, as Hatta headed toward Studio One for the NHK promo taping, an ominous plume of thick smoke darkened the sky. A feeling of unreality began to descend on him, growing more acute as he approached the flames.

Unable to find parking nearby, he ditched his car and ran the half mile or so to the studio. "I couldn't really feel the distance," he says. Firefighters lined the roads, blocking his entrance. He pushed past, into an alley, and kept running until he found a few employees sprawled on the streets. Their faces were black and they clutched wet towels.

"What happened?" Hatta asked the gathered employees and onlookers. 

Although the CEO was one of the first to arrive on the scene that morning, the fates of the 70 employees who had been inside already had been largely determined. The chemistry of the fire had instantly transformed the physics of the building; the curving staircase had become a powerful chimney, the central mechanism that turned the fire into an inferno. On the first floor, the blaze consumed two people immediately. Eleven more died on the second floor. Nineteen men and women made it to the upper portions of the stairwell that connected the third floor to the roof, but no further. Their bodies were found piled together at the door's cusp. The door itself was unlocked, but no one had been able to open it. "It would be difficult for people to evacuate through the indoor staircase to the rooftop, as their whole body would have been engulfed by smoke," noted a report compiled later by Tomoaki Nishino, an associate professor at Kyoto University's Disaster Prevention Research Institute. "People's life or death was determined within 30 seconds after ignition, at the latest."

Those who managed to get out did so within the fire's initial moments. Some were able to escape from the first floor, running to nearby buildings for safety. At least one man jumped from a window to safety. Others fell or scrambled out of broken windows and doors, breaking limbs along the way.

Seventeen-year-old Keiyu Hada, whose father presided over the nearby Daizenji Temple, was among those who rushed toward the fire to help. The blaze had spread so fast that several employees — none of whom, in the Japanese style, were wearing shoes indoors that day — had cut themselves on broken glass trying to escape through the exploding windows, and Hada saw that the street's white traffic lines were smeared with bloody footprints. Later, Hada and his father discreetly visited parishioners in their homes and recited Buddhist scriptures to "calm the spirits" of the dead. "This was not a normal way of passing away," Hada explains. "In our understanding, the spirits [of the dead] were in a state of rampage."

Hatta, meanwhile, stayed at Studio One until 6 p.m., consoling victims and trying to digest the carnage. As evening fell, he tried making his way back to Studio Five, but everywhere he went he saw journalists. Turning toward home, he and Yoko discovered their house surrounded by TV trucks. So Hatta discreetly dropped his wife at their daughter's house nearby, and carried on alone, driving aimlessly through the empty streets, exhausted and numb. Eventually, he found himself again in the general vicinity of the wreckage, and pulled into an empty parking lot, not far from where Aoba had slept the previous night. "I sat alone in the car, sweating, stunned," Hatta recalls. Much later that night, his son tracked him down and joined him there. "We tried to understand how something like this could have happened," Hatta says. "We stayed up all night together. We couldn't sleep at all."

Several blocks away, at the site of the fire, mourners already had laid the first of what would become a mountain of flowers at the building's edge. City officials would come and remove the flowers each night, only to find the mountain rebuilt the next day. So, too, came KyoAni fans. Thousands of them began pouring in from around the world.

***

Families also had begun calling. "They all started coming because they couldn't contact their kids," Hatta says. Ryuhei Takashima, a KyoAni producer who had been headed to Studio One the morning of the fire but was called back just as the flames were erupting, remembers how about 20 family members came to the studio on that first day looking for relatives. Many of the bodies were so badly burned that investigators, without the help of time-consuming DNA tests, had no way to identify them. And amid the frenzy of the immediate aftermath, the police also were slow to confirm where the remains of the deceased had been taken, as well as the whereabouts and conditions of survivors. Nobuaki Maruki, a manager in the company's animation division, remembers feeling helpless watching families drifting in and out of the building, waiting for information. Employees tried to encourage one another by reminiscing about projects they had shared. Many people just wept. "We just tried to keep sane," Maruki says.

Thirty-three people had died in the initial blaze, but within days, survivors also began to die. One afternoon, Takashima received the call that he would need to reach out to another family — one more colleague had passed away. This victim, a young animator, was someone he had once considered an office rival but who had later become a close friend. “I had to hide that I was emotionally unstable,” he says. “I wanted the family to feel that everything was under control — to give them at least that comfort.” 

Funerals soon followed. Hatta assigned people to attend the events in pairs for support, and, because the local media was relentlessly hounding staff and victims' families, they did so in secret. "The hardest thing was that the staff couldn't attend all the funerals," Takashima says. "They had to choose." Within just a few weeks of the fire, several employees had attended as many as five funerals.

The fire was indiscriminate, taking Yasuhiro Takemoto, 47, a titan in the industry who was known for his arrestingly beautiful visual style and who had spent most of his career at the studio, as well as another employee who had started only five months earlier. A young animator who volunteered as a local firefighter died on the third floor. Kigami, the elder statesman who had spoken so eloquently about the company's mission, also was killed. Each of these losses eroded Hatta's ability to conceive of a way forward for the studio. "Our leaders were lost," Hatta says. "Our hearts ached."

During those weeks, Hatta's thoughts occasionally turned to Aoba. Nine months earlier, in October 2018, the company had received a flurry of emailed death threats in which certain employees were identified by name. But the emails all had been essentially identical, as if the sender had written one email and sent it a couple of hundred times. At the time, the police investigation into the threats yielded little, but now, in light of Aoba's claims of plagiarism, the Hattas were forced to reconsider it. Every year since 2009, as part of its efforts to stay connected and engaged with fans, KyoAni sponsored an annual contest of amateur writers of light novels, a genre similar to young adult fiction in the U.S. The winning work was published and chosen for further development as a potential series or film.

Initially the Hattas hadn't been aware that Aoba had entered the contest, but during a more exhaustive search in the days after the fire, they discovered that Aoba had indeed submitted his own novel during a past edition of the contest. However, contrary to Aoba's claims of theft, the Hattas say, his entry never made it past the first screening round. KyoAni reviewed the work and reported that it in no way resembles any of the studio's released work. (The Hattas declined to discuss the contents of Aoba's novel, saying that any decision to disclose such material is up to the police, who now possess the manuscript and will not comment.)

The police hadn't told Hatta anything about Aoba, but snippets of his past began emerging in the media. His father was a school bus driver who, after having six children with his first wife, left her and took up with a kindergarten teacher. He had three more children with her, the second of whom was Shinji Aoba. His father committed suicide in 1999, and Aoba then cut off relations with his siblings. In the following years, he committed at least two crimes. Once he stole some female undergarments off a laundry line and received a suspended sentence. In 2012, he was convicted of burgling a convenience store and spent three and a half years in jail. He had been on probation or cycling through halfway houses ever since. A neighbor of his in Saitama says she sometimes saw social workers visit Aoba during the day to conduct wellness checks.

***

At the time of the fire, Japan famous the world over for its low crime rate — was the safest it had been since World War II. According to the United Nations, in 2017, Japan had just 306 total homicides, a per-capita rate of .20 per 100,000 people (compared with the U.S. rate of 5.3 per 100,000, or 17,284 homicides in total). On July 18, the very day of Aoba's attack, Japan's National Police Agency reported that the total number of crimes in the country was down 8.7 percent for the first half of 2019.

A sudden and vicious act of mass murder, which was so out of sync with prevailing trends in public safety, risked the specter of a scapegoat. The anime community was famously passionate and devoted. An entire subculture long had existed in Japan of so-called otaku, hard-core anime and manga fans who were stereotyped as socially awkward misfits too absorbed in their fantasy worlds to participate in "normal society." One media report suggested that Aoba was "someone who looked like an otaku." When Aoba’s movements in the days before the fire were revealed in the press, many speculated that he had been visiting KyoAni “pilgrimage sites” that were popular destinations among die-hard fans eager to see the real places portrayed in their favorite films. No direct evidence ever emerged to confirm that he was such a pilgrim, or even that he was visiting sites, but the mere possibility of it was enough for many to cement Aoba’s image as a devoted and deranged anime obsessive.

The fear associated with otaku dates back to 1989, when a man named Tsutomu Miyazaki killed four young girls and became known as the "Otaku Murderer" after a large collection of horror and anime videotapes was found in his apartment. A moral panic over the growing phenomenon of otaku ensued, as the media questioned whether the surging popularity of anime and manga among Japan's socially alienated youth had contributed to making Miyazaki a killer. Time and again over the intervening years, public suspicions of otaku were raised when sensational crimes transpired — often it was a stretch; very occasionally the connection could appear troubling. In 2003, for example, an anime fan named Hiroyuki Tsuchida beat his mother to death with a baseball bat, claiming that the cult anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion had convinced him that humans were "unnecessary."

In recent years, though, as classic anime works became some of Japan's proudest cultural exports, the term otaku had shed much of its pejorative resonance — a process not dissimilar to the way the soaring commercial clout of Silicon Valley correlated with a re-evaluation of the "geek" in American popular culture. People of all walks of life began to self-identify as otaku. Of course, violent crime has, at various times, been linked to entertainment of all kinds, and in that context anime-inspired murder was no different. But arson, when it does occur, "is a primal kind of violence, usually linked to extremely high levels of resentment and antisocial bias," says Takayuki Harada, a professor of psychology at Tsukuba University. "It is in a very special behavioral category."

Aoba, it seemed clear, was both resentful and antisocial. In a society that was known for its propensity to isolate people, Aoba existed at an extreme end. Having been sanctioned already for crimes he had committed, he was unlikely to regain entry to society. And yet there was little indication that he actually was an anime fan. His neighbor Matsumoto, who proudly identifies as an otaku, says he had heard the sound of video games — but never the sounds of anime films — emanating from Aoba's apartment. "He looked like someone who had no hobbies, nothing he cared about — not like someone who loved anime," Matsumoto says.

With gaps in information and so much mischaracterization floating around, no one at KyoAni really knew what to do. "For some people, confusion turned into anger or rage," Hatta says. "For some, it became despair." On Sept. 21, the staff held a memorial gathering for the victims' families. Twelve artists each picked three victims whom they'd been close to and drew their portraits. "It enabled me to face the loss as a reality," says Maruki, the animation manager. "It settled my mind a bit."

By October, with victims still dying from burn injuries, Aoba had regained consciousness and was thanking the team of nurses and doctors who had cared for him while also admitting that he had deliberately targeted Studio One. "I thought I would be able to injure many people," he reportedly told police. He also seemed aware, if not quite remorseful. "I've done things that have gone off the road," he said, cryptically. According to local media reports, he told investigators that he expected to receive the death penalty. (Capital punishment is legal, though rare, in Japan.) Aoba still has not been arrested and remains in a hospital burn unit. Under Japanese law, as soon as an arrest is made, a hospitalized suspect must be moved to police custody, and authorities have said they're waiting for Aoba's health to improve — he suffered life-threatening burns on approximately 90 percent of his body in the attack — before moving him to a non-specialty prison hospital. As the year ended, hospital officials revealed that Aoba was the first major burn victim in Japan's history to have received grafts of only synthetic skin. The hospital system had a limited supply of donor skin and decided to use their stock only for his victims.

***

For the first 24 hours after news of the fire broke, Daisuke Okeda watched the tragedy unfold on television. Okeda's impeccable suits, paisley ties and Italian leather briefcase made the lawyer an outlier in the anime industry, where he was a fixture. Okeda had met the Hattas in 2010, and while he didn't know the couple that well, they kept in regular touch through trade meetings, anime shows and conferences.

Okeda also had a friend who worked as KyoAni's business manager and would have likely played a key role in helping the Hattas navigate the tragedy's aftermath. But the friend suffered from an illness and had been hospitalized. Okeda knew the company's full-time lawyer was likely occupied dealing with the victims' families and the insurance companies. The Hattas, he thought, stood virtually alone in the face of massive legal and financial challenges. He felt honor bound to assist them. "I am not a member of the company. I am not a producer. I have no big funds. What I can do is protect them," he says, gently placing his hand over his arm, simulating an open wound. "I would become a scab, like a scar."

Okeda spoke to his wife, and they agreed that he would put his regular work in Tokyo on hold if KyoAni accepted his offer to devote his full attention to their needs. The next day, he took the bullet train to Kyoto, showing up at the studio unannounced and proffering his services. Hatta asked Okeda to first consult his wife. When he found and spoke to Yoko, she collapsed in his arms. In a weak voice, she said, "Please help us."

There was a sense, in Japan and beyond, that the KyoAni fire's devastation was in a category of its own, and a consensus formed that the response should be equal to the devastation. Already, several other studios had changed their security protocols after employees fretted about copycat attacks. Many were simply stricken by the horror and loss of what had befallen such admired peers. "Many animation studios in Tokyo noticed that their staff couldn't focus and be productive," says Okeda. (Three months after the KyoAni attack, Noriaki Inukai was arrested in Japan for making online threats against Gainax, the anime studio behind Neon Genesis Evangelion.) While Okeda was aware of these broader concerns, he was driven most forcefully by a deep-seated desire to help the Hattas. And so, over the coming weeks, he became the linchpin of a concerted, behind-the-scenes effort to save KyoAni and protect its remaining employees. "I could not have lived with myself if I didn't do anything," he says. He offered his services for free.

The first challenge was the media. Okeda made a deal with the dozens of journalists covering the tragedy. If they didn't back off, the studio would share nothing. If they removed their trucks and reporters from the streets outside the studio and employees' homes, he would give them regular updates. Meanwhile, families of the victims were distraught and confused, and anger in some form seemed almost inevitable, Okeda reasoned. If even one decided to sue the company, it could be devastating. "We are not God, we cannot get back their lives," Okeda said. "Maybe money is the only thing."

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Sentai Filmworks, a Texas-based specialty distributor that had released several KyoAni productions in the U.S., launched a GoFundMe campaign seeking donations from the international anime fan base. Within days, it had brought in $2.4 million. On July 22, Okeda announced a centralized donation program on KyoAni's website, consolidating the Sentai money with millions more that had begun to flow to the studio through informal channels across Japan. At the same time, he began talks with members of the Japanese Diet, and even the Japanese prime minister's office, hoping to find a way to make the donations tax-exempt, which would mean up to 40 percent more money could go to the families.

Bolstered by the initial wave of support from powerful voices worldwide — including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen — Okeda's discreet lobbying efforts began to pay off. Within four weeks, Japan's national legislature passed a measure allowing for 100 percent of the donated funds to be tax-exempt, a first in Japanese corporate history. To date, more than $30 million has been donated, the vast majority in the form of small donations from fans. Although some have argued for KyoAni to use a portion of the funds for its own reconstruction, Hatta has insisted that all of the donations will go to the victims and their families.

***

In the weeks following the fire, Hatta often returned to the question of why but came to feel as if he were staring into a void. Five months on, he is beginning to leave that question behind, moving beyond Aoba. "He doesn't exist in my mind," Hatta says. "This is not a human act. This isn't something a human is capable of. I am beyond hate." Though he and Yoko are at an age where they normally would have begun contemplating retirement, the Hattas instead now experience a kind of existential vertigo. "If we quit now, I will be left with regret," Hatta says. "What was my life about?"

In the days after the blaze, Okeda and other members of KyoAni's staff made an exploratory trip into Studio One's charred remains. There, they discovered one minor miracle. While the fire had destroyed about half of KyoAni's pending work on paper, it had spared the studio's server, housed in a back corner of the building behind a fireproof door and cement walls. Thousands of hours' worth of work, much of it by employees who are now gone, still survived.

Hatta is torn about whether to rebuild Studio One, as some staff have voiced reservations about working at the site of the tragedy. He was drawn to the idea of tearing it down and building a small memorial park, but he's concerned that it would become a disturbance to the already traumatized surrounding neighborhood, as anime fans inevitably would flock to the site, something that already has become a daily nuisance for neighbors.

Remarkably few of KyoAni's surviving employees resigned after the fire, and for the many who returned, the slow and careful art of putting pen to paper was the only thing that seemed to make sense. Akiko Takase, the chief character designer of Violet Evergarden, says she feels "closer" to her lost colleagues only when drawing. At home, she sinks into "a blank state."

From the beginning, families and goodwill had been the bedrock of KyoAni's corporate culture. Returning to work with those who remain, Hatta now believes, is the only response to the unanswerable questions that continue to haunt him. "There are mothers who lost their daughters, daughters who lost their mothers, a father who lost his first-born son. Rebuilding the company requires that people come together," he says. "As long as we have one person, we will keep going. We started from nothing. We will be together in this."

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.