Kyoto – A Japanese man found guilty of carrying out an arson attack that killed 36 people at an anime studio in 2019 was sentenced to death on Thursday.
The blaze that ripped through the studios of Kyoto Animation four-and-a-half years ago was Japan’s deadliest crime in decades and stunned the anime industry and its fans around the world.
Shinji Aoba, now 45, broke into the building, spread gasoline around the ground floor, lit it and shouted “drop dead” on the morning of July 18, 2019, survivors said.
“The act of pouring an enormous amount of gasoline and setting it ablaze is extremely likely to be fatal, and immolating people is truly cruel and inhumane,” presiding judge Keisuke Masuda said in his ruling.
The victims “were engulfed in fire and smoke in the blink of an eye… They died an anguishing death as the studio instantly turned into a hell”, he said.
Many of those killed were young, including a 21-year-old woman.
A number of victims were found on a spiral stairwell leading to the roof, suggesting they were overcome as they desperately tried to escape.
“There was a person who jumped from the second floor… but we couldn’t rush to help because the fire was so strong,” one woman told local media at the time.
More than 30 others were injured, with firefighters calling the incident “unprecedented” and saying that rescuing people trapped inside was “extremely difficult”.
Japan is one of the few developed countries with capital punishment and polls show public support for it is high. As of December, 107 people were on death row.
Aoba, who was arrested near the scene, faced five charges including murder, attempted murder and arson, and prosecutors sought capital punishment.
His lawyers entered a plea of not guilty, saying he had a “mental disorder”, but the judge rejected this.
Aoba believed that the studio known by its fans as KyoAni stole his ideas, prosecutors said, a claim the company has denied.
Aoba himself sustained burns on 90 percent of his body and only regained consciousness weeks after the fire, and the ability to speak later still. He reportedly underwent 12 operations for his injuries.
Founded in 1981 by a husband and wife, KyoAni is a household name for anime fans, responsible for popular TV series including “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya” and “K-ON!”
After the attack, there was shock and grief in Japan and worldwide, with Apple CEO Tim Cook among those tweeting his support and a crowdfunding campaign raising $2.4 million to help the firm.
Hideaki Hatta, company president, on Thursday welcomed the verdict but said that the “thought of all our employees who perished… just breaks my heart”.
Inside the courtroom packed with family members of the victims, one person cried and covered their eyes as the judge spoke, local media reported.
“A good number of young people joined our studio after the attack. We will remain committed to taking good care of people who work for us, and making sure each and every one of them can perform to their potential,” Hatta said.
Dozens of KyoAni fans braved snow to stand outside the courthouse, with one of them Renji Kiriyama, 27, recalling hearing about the fire on his car radio.
“With all the news reports about this case, I hope this will expose more people to KyoAni. If this spreads the name of KyoAni and brings its works to more people and more people know its name, I would be happy,” he told AFP.
“I hope the verdict would ease the burden and anguish of the families even a little,” said Kentaro Hatanaka, another fan.
“I hope KyoAni will again bring to the world kinds of animations that are filled with life as they did before this happened,” he said.
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