KYOTO – A suspected arson attack on an animation production company in Kyoto left at least 33 people dead and dozens injured Thursday.
The death toll is the highest for an arson incident since 1989, when the previous Heisei Era (1989-2019) started, according to police.
Police said some people witnessed a man screaming “Die!” as he set the fire at a studio of Kyoto Animation Co.
Police also found knives at the scene. The suspect, 41, who was also injured, was taken to a local hospital.
According to investigative sources on Friday, the suspect said he set the studio fire on the studio because it “stole a novel.”
About 70 people were believed to have been working when the fire broke out at around 10:35 a.m. The bodies of eleven victims were found on the second floor of the structure, and four on the stairs.
There was no immediate information on a possible motive.
The toll continued to climb hours after the fire began, with fire department officials saying more bodies were being discovered as they searched the ravaged building.
People near the studio said they heard a series of explosions and saw black smoke billowing out of the building. People were later seen being carried out of the studio covered in blankets.
“A person with singed hair was lying down and there were bloody footprints,” said a 59-year-old woman who lives nearby.
“I heard a bang. The black smoke rose and the burning smell was awful,” said a hair salon manager in his 30s.
Footage of the blaze showed thick white smoke pouring from the windows of the three-story building. Its facade was charred black on much of one side where the flames had shot out of the windows.
Police said they were still investigating the cause of the fire but believe it was the result of arson. “A man threw a liquid and set fire to it,” a Kyoto Prefectural Police spokesman said.
The company, also known as KyoAni, has produced “K-On!” and “Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu” (“The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”), which depict the daily lives of high school girls, “A Silent Voice,” “Clannad” and “Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon” (“Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid”).
“This has just broken our hearts. What’s the use of resorting to violence?” asked Hideaki Hatta, president of the anime company, in front of the damaged studio later in the day.
The blaze prompted an outpouring of support from those in Japan’s anime industry, one of the country’s best known cultural exports.
Twitter erupted in a flood of posts from around the world as anime fans sent messages of condolences for the victims and their families and prayers in Japanese and English. Many used the hashtag #PrayForKyoani.
“No, I don’t know what I should be thinking now,” tweeted Yutaka Yamamoto, an animation director who once worked at Kyoto Animation. “Why, why, why?”
U.S.-based anime licensing company Sentai Filmworks started a crowdfunding campaign to help the company. As of 2 a.m. Friday, 24,480 people have already donated a total of $802,495.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also posted a message on Twitter: “So many people were killed or injured. It’s so appalling I can’t find the right words.
“I pray for … their souls.”
People convicted of deliberately setting fires in the country, where many people live in wooden houses, can face the death penalty.
A man convicted of setting a fire that killed 16 people in Osaka in 2008 is currently on death row.
Kyoto Animation has studios in Kyoto and nearby Uji, where it is headquartered. The fire occurred at its first studio, according to the company.
Founded in 1981, the firm has released a number of animations appealing to younger generations, particularly in the 2000s. Many fans have visited locations associated with the productions.
In Tokyo’s Akihabara district, where dozens of anime shops are located, some fans said they are worried about the future of the company.
“I really like KyoAni so I feel upset,” said Kento Omura, 22, who is from Yamaguchi Prefecture.
“Their anime works are really beautiful and their stories are moving, too,” he said.