A Japanese court has delivered a landmark verdict in the tragic Kyoto Animation Studio arson case, sentencing 45-year-old Shinji Aoba to death for a 2019 attack that claimed 36 lives and injured dozens.
The Kyoto District Court, led by Chief Judge Masuda, reached this conclusion on Thursday, concluding a case that has captivated both Japan and the international anime community.
Aoba, who admitted to the crime, had his defence seek a more lenient sentence, arguing mental incompetence. The court, however, dismissed this argument, finding Aoba fully aware and responsible for his actions.
“The death of 36 people is extremely serious and tragic. The fear and pain of the deceased victims were indescribable,” said Judge Masuda, echoing the sentiments of a nation still mourning the loss of young, talented artists who were predominantly the victims of this senseless act.
The prosecution presented Aoba as being driven by a delusion that Kyoto Animation had plagiarized his work. This belief was firmly refuted by the studio, clarifying that while they received a draft novel from Aoba, it bore no resemblance to any of their published works and was not advanced beyond the initial review stages.
On that fateful day, 18 July 2019, Aoba entered the studio armed with 40 litres of gasoline, which he had purchased from a location 10 kilometres away. He splashed gasoline on six workers while shouting, “Go to hell!” and ignited the building with a lighter. The inferno rapidly swept through the building, engulfing seventy occupants, including Aoba himself.
Aoba, sustaining burns over 90% of his body, attempted to flee but was apprehended by the police after being pursued by two studio employees.
Ultimately, 36 people perished, and 32 were injured. Heartbreakingly, 20 victims were discovered on the stairway leading to the roof, a tragic indication of their desperate attempt to escape. The Kyoto police faced challenges in identifying several victims due to the intensity of the burns. Autopsy results later confirmed that most deaths were caused by burns, not carbon monoxide poisoning, highlighting the fire’s rapid spread.
Kyodo News quotes a survivor who testified in court, saying she escaped through a window after being splashed with gasoline. Suffering burns on 94% of her body, she underwent surgery 49 times.
“I feel despair whenever I look in the mirror. It’s grueling to live with this body,” she said.
During his September 2023 guilty plea, Aoba expressed deep remorse, acknowledging the enormity of his actions and their consequences.
The incident has left indelible physical and psychological scars on survivors and victims’ families. Judge Masuda’s verdict poignantly addressed the lasting anguish and guilt among those affected. The courtroom was a scene of profound emotion, with many relatives visibly distressed as they listened to the harrowing details of the crime.
In Japan, where capital punishment is retained for heinous crimes like multiple murders, Aoba’s sentence of death by hanging underscores the gravity of his actions. Convicts on death row in Japan often face lengthy waits before their sentences are executed.
Kyoto Animation, fondly known as KyoAni, is revered worldwide for its contributions to anime, with acclaimed works like K-On! and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The studio’s loss resonated deeply across the globe, prompting an outpouring of support. Over ¥3.3 billion (US$30.27 million) was raised in Japan, with international contributions exceeding US$2.3 million, aiding the studio and its staff in their recovery. This support led to the National Diet passing special measures for tax-exempt donations to the studio.
In response to the tragedy, Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency and the National Police Agency issued a directive on 25 July 2019, mandating gas stations to keep records of gasoline sales in refillable containers, aligning with fire safety regulations.
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