TOKYO–Loved and respected among anime fans world-wide, Kyoto Animation is especially well known for films like A Silent Voice, which stressed the importance of choosing life over death. So there is a strange irony in Thursday’s deadly arson attack.
The voices of 33 people were silenced forever by a 41-year-old man who set fire to the three-floor studio. The Kyoto Police have the man in custody and are expected to book him on arson and other charges in the next few days.
Kyoto Animation is a gem in the dark universe of Japan’s often exploitive animation industry, famous for its thoughtful animated films and for establishing a healthy workplace with job security.
Its 2016 film, A Silent Voice, was a rare commercial and critical success that tackled the issues of bullying, violence, and suicide in Japan, and the importance of all human life. There seems to be no reason for anyone to target the firm and its employees for murder. Yet Thursday’s attack ranks as one of the most deadly cases of arson in post-war Japan and may be a devastating blow to the anime industry outside of Tokyo.
According to the Kyoto Police, the Kyoto Fire Department and reports from state broadcaster NHK and other Japanese news outlets, at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, a man in his forties arrived at the Kyoto Animation Number One Studio facilities, located in Fushimi ward, in Kyoto City.
There were close to 70 people working in the 32,000-square-foot three-story complex at the time. The man carried with him a plastic container and proceeded to spread a flammable liquid, probably gasoline, inside of the building. He set fire to it with a lighter, while screaming, “Die!” There was an explosion and the building rapidly went up in flames.
The man reportedly caught fire himself and ran into the street where he was pursued by a company employee. The suspect then collapsed after running several feet and was apprehended by the police. Meanwhile 30 fire engines arrived and attempted to put out the flames and rescue the people trapped inside. It took several hours to put out the blaze.
According to the Kyoto Fire Department, as of 10 p.m. Japan time, there were 33 people confirmed dead, and dozens others injured. According to the fire department, several people had fallen down in the staircase connecting the third floor and the roof; they appeared to have become trapped there and died while trying to escape.
According to reports in the newspaper Sankei and other media, the heavy-set 41-year-old man detained at the scene was dressed in a red t-shirt and jeans; he was barefoot and his feet were covered in blood.
When the police apprehended him and demanded to know why he’d done it, he reportedly screamed angrily, “they faked it.” The word he used in Japanese, pakuri, can reference stealing an idea, ripping off a product, or plagiarizing someone else’s work. He told the police that he had used gasoline to set the fire. There have been reports that he had been seen walking down a narrow road close to the building, staring at it as if he was deep in thought, two days before the fire.
There was one eyewitness who claimed to have seen tattoos on his belly, visible after he had rolled up his burned t-shirt.
In an evening interview broadcast on NHK News, the president of the company Hideaki Hatta said his company had recently received death threats. He added that they often received hostile messages. Every time they have received concrete threats, they have consulted with lawyers and the police, he said.
Japan has seen several deadly cases of arson in the last 20 years. In 2001, a botched robbery of a consumer loan company in the Kanto area ended with the death of five people; the man responsible was executed. In 2008 in Osaka, a man set fire to a private video booth store, killing 16 people, and was sentenced to death. In the summer of 2001, a fire in Kabukicho, the red-light district of Tokyo, resulted in the deaths of 44 people. Arson was suspected but never proven.
Kyoto Animation, known to fans as “KyoAni” was founded in 1981; it may not be as well-known as Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, but the studio is loved and respected by anime fans world-wide. The studio really came into prominence after 2000 and has produced exquisitely animated shows and films that are appreciated on a global level. The studio is also well-known for its comparatively great working conditions.
Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded The U.S., praised the firm in an email to The Daily Beast. “The studio is a rarity in the Japanese anime industry in treating its employees with respect. Their animators are full-time, salaried employees... in a business where the vast majority of artists are on short-term freelance contracts, often paid by the frame, and paid poorly at that. The quality of their work reflects that respect and job security.”
Working conditions at other animation companies are often dismal, resulting in karoshi, death by overwork. In 2014, the Tokyo Labor Standards Office formally recognized the suicide of one animation worker as the result of overwork and ordered compensation to be paid to his family. The employee had at least one month where he worked 600 hours before becoming severely depressed and killing himself. While Japanese animation aka anime often abounds with cute happy animals and bright colors, the day to day workplace is usually very grim, and smiles are in short-supply.
Kyoto Animation is not only well-known for taking care of its employees but it is also well-known for indulging fans. Journalist Kat Callahan, @JezebelKat on Twitter, after hearing the news, tweeted, “They gave me a tour a few years back and indulged my desire to take photos replicating their own characters visiting their studio. I am appalled. And will be sending a condolence card.”
Brian Ashcraft, a prolific writer about Japanese pop culture says, “Kyoto Animation is one of Japan's most popular animation studios. They have a distinctive style. They have made iconic anime like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and K-On!. This attack is a terrible tragedy. I cannot even start to imagine how it will affect the animation industry. ”
Kelts also points out that Kyoto Animation is among the small percentage of anime studios located outside the Tokyo metropolitan area.
Over the years, Kyoto Animation has brought desperately needed diversity of staff and sometimes controversial subject matter to an industry that is very centralized and often surprisingly conservative. A Silent Voice was a genuinely rare anime film that dealt both with thorny subject matter, bullying, and which also had a female director.
It would be a shame if one angry man with a tank of gasoline has extinguished the voice of an animation studio that is loved and increasingly appreciated in and outside of Japan. As for the assailant, if he’s seen their films, he clearly didn’t get the message.