Kyoto Animation Arson Attack Suspect Charged With Murder in Japan

Kyoto Animation Fire_SPLASH - Getty - H 2019
The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Shinji Aoba, 42, was detained in the immediate aftermath of the fire, which killed 36, but prosecutors had to wait for him to recover from severe burns and undergo a lengthy psychiatric evaluation before making charges.

Japanese prosecutors on Wednesday charged a man with murder for last year’s deadly arson attack on Kyoto Animation, the family-run studio behind a string of internationally beloved anime films and television series.

The suspect, Shinji Aoba, 42, was detained in the immediate aftermath of the fire, but local authorities had to wait months for him to recover from serious burns before formally placing him under arrest. The Kyoto Public Prosecutors Office then kept him in confinement for six months for a mental evaluation.

Thirty six people died in the attack, and 33 were injured, many with severe burns. The incident is thought to be Japan's largest mass killing since World War II.

Prosecutors said Wednesday that Aoba had been charged with five crimes including murder, attempted murder, and arson. Japan’s national broadcaster NHK reported that medical experts are thought to have deemed Aoba mentally fit to be held criminally responsible for his actions because of the elaborate planning that went into the attack.

On the eve of the July 2019 incident, Aoba had explored the area surrounding Kyoto Animation’s main production building, purchasing a trolley at a local hardware store and about 10 gallons of gasoline at a nearby filling station. He then wheeled the fuel to a park where he spent the night on a bench. The next morning, he pushed his gas-laden cart through Kyoto Animation’s studio doors and set it alight, reportedly screaming “Die!”

One surviving Kyoto Animation staffer described leaping from a second-floor window as searing heat and black smoke roared through the building. Many of the victims attempted to escape via a central stairwell, but died of carbon monoxide poisoning before reaching the roof, according to a fire report.

Japanese media, citing unnamed police sources, reported in the aftermath that Aoba's motive was the belief that Kyoto Animation had stolen a novel he wrote.

The incident shocked Japan to the core. The country has exceedingly low rates of violent crime, and the victims were especially treasured within the anime world. Kyoto Animation, affectionally known as KyoAni to its fans, had long been famous for its positive work culture and optimistically themed, "slice of life" storytelling. Founded by husband and wife Yoko and Hideaki Hatta in 1981, the company also had a reputation for employing women artists and nurturing the careers of its staff, both rare within Japan’s notoriously cut-throat anime industry.

The studio’s fanbase is particularly passionate, in part because of the many fan engagement events KyoAni has held over the years. One such activity was an annual contest in which draft novels were solicited from aspiring writers, with the winning work selected by the studio for development into a feature anime film or series.

After Aoba's allegation came to light, Kyoto Animation undertook an internal investigation and discovered that it indeed had received a draft manuscript under the name Shinji Aoba. The work was handed over to police, and its contents have never been revealed publicly. Kyoto Animation said the work bears no similarities to any of its released films or series though.

In his only one-on-one interview since the incident, Hideaki Hatta, the studio’s 69-year-old CEO Hideaki Hatta, told The Hollywood Reporter last year that his thoughts and energy would only be directed toward providing comfort for victims and rebuilding Kyoto Animation for its fans. Of Aoba, he only said: "He doesn't exist in my mind. This is not a human act. This isn't something a human is capable of. I am beyond hate."