KYOTO – A man suspected of carrying out the deadly arson attack on Kyoto Animation Co. may have visited the site in the days leading up to Thursday’s blaze, with someone resembling him spotted by nearby residents several times.
Shinji Aoba, 41, was taken to a hospital in Kyoto after allegedly igniting the three-story studio after dousing it with gasoline, killing 34 people and burning himself in the process. He was transferred to a hospital in Osaka by helicopter Saturday, according to the police, who are waiting for him to recover before arresting him.
On Thursday morning, Aoba allegedly entered the studio in Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward screaming “Die!” and immediately splashed liquid from a bucket on the first floor, according to the police. They believe he bought gasoline from a nearby gas station earlier in the day and brought two 20-liter cans of it to the studio on a cart.
A woman in the neighborhood said she saw a man resembling Aoba around Monday near a bicycle parking area outside a convenience store about 200 meters west of the building. He was using a smartphone and had two boxes near him that appeared to have gas cans inside.
Two days later, a high school student spotted a man wearing a red T-shirt and jeans — similar to what Aoba was wearing when he was apprehended — lying on a park bench about 500 meters from the studio at around 8 p.m. She also saw a cart near the bench.
A junior high school student said she saw a man resembling the suspect both on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday, the day of the fire.
The police have not confirmed Aoba’s address and occupation, although investigative sources said his driver’s license shows him to be a resident of Saitama Prefecture.
A Kyoto police official declined to speculate about the suspect’s preparations, saying he wanted him to explain it himself, along with his motives.
The blaze blocked the front door and quickly engulfed the studio, rising up stairs to the third floor and sending employees fleeing in panic. Some were able to escape by crawling out of the windows with the help of nearby residents. Many unsuccessfully tried to get to the roof, fire officials said. Most of the victims are believed to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning, experts say.
The suspect fled but was chased by studio employees before collapsing outside a house, where he was quickly surrounded by police.
“They are always stealing. It’s their fault,” he was quoted as telling the officers bent over him, according to a witness who described the scene outside her house.
The suspect has a criminal record stemming from robbery in 2012, according to the sources. Following his release, he was allowed to be part of a government welfare program for former inmates needing special assistance because he had a mental illness.
While his motive is not yet clear, he was quoted as telling the police he started the fire because the company “stole a novel,” claiming his ideas had been plagiarized.
Kyoto Animation President Hideaki Hatta was stunned Friday when he entered the site for the first time since the fire to join the investigators. “I can hardly bear to see this,” he said.
Upon returning on Saturday, Hatta told reporters he had “no idea” about the suspect’s claim that his novel was stolen. Hatta said there is no record of Aoba ever working for or submitting work to the company.
Kyoto Animation, affectionately known as “KyoAni,” is the producer of popular animated TV series including “K-On!” and “Sound! Euphonium.” It has a strong following not only in Japan but overseas as well, and its Kyoto studio is a well-known site among anime fans.
People continued to visit the site to offer prayers and flowers.
“Its works were my youth. It’s an extremely terrible incident and I wish this were a dream,” said Hisahiro Ikeda, a 36-year-old Gifu Prefecture resident and “K-On!” fan.
A 24-year-old from Aichi Prefecture said, “We have lost an asset of Japan.”