Kyoto animation studio fire: At least 33 feared dead, PM Abe calls incident it ‘too appaling for words’

An aerial view shows firefighters battling fires at the site where a man started a fire after spraying a liquid at a three-story studio of Kyoto Animation Co. in Kyoto, western Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo, July 18, 2019. Mandatory credit (Kyodo/via REUTERS)

In the nation’s worst mass killing in nearly two decades, at least 33 people were feared dead in an arson attack on a Japanese animation studio in Kyoto on Thursday after a man was seen shouting "die" as he doused the building with fuel. It was Japan’s worst mass killing since a suspected arson attack on a Tokyo building in 2001.

Television footage from outside the studio showed white and black smoke billowing from its charred windows. According to NHK, the suspected arsonist was injured and was being treated in hospital, so police could not question him.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the fire in the city of Kyoto "too appalling for words" on Twitter and offered condolences to the victims’ families. "Today, common people were killed and wounded in an arson murder case in Kyoto," Abe said in a post on Twitter. "It is too appalling for words," he added.

Shortly after the incident, police arrested a 41-year-old man who had shouted "die" as he poured what appeared to be petrol around the three-storey Kyoto Animation building shortly after 10 am (0100 GMT), public broadcaster NHK reported.

Outpour of support on social media

Meanwhile, there was an outpouring of support for the studio on Japanese-language social media, with some users posting pictures of animation. Many posted with the hashtag "#PrayForKyoani" – using an abbreviation for Kyoto Animation.

Past incidents of violent crime in Japan

Usually, violent crime is relatively rare in Japan, but occasional high-profile incidents have shocked the country.

Less than two months ago, a knife-wielding man slashed at a group of schoolgirls at a bus stop in Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo, killing one girl and the father of another, while injuring more than a dozen children.

Similarly, in 2016, a man armed with a knife broke into an assisted living facility for the disabled in a small town near Tokyo and killed 19 patients.

Kyoto Animation, better known as KyoAni, was founded in 1981 as an animation and comic book production studio, and its hits include "Lucky Star," "K-On!" and "Haruhi Suzumiya." The company does not have a major presence outside Japan, though it was hired to provide secondary animation work on a 1998 "Pokemon" feature that appeared in U.S. theaters and a "Winnie the Pooh" video.

Witnesses heard loud bangs, saw people coming out bleeding

Fans of anime expressed anger, prayed and mourned for the victims on social networks. A cloud-funding site also started up to help the company rebuilt. As per Kyodo News, witnesses reported loud bangs coming from the building, others said they saw people coming out blackened, bleeding, walking barefoot. Rescue officials set up an orange tent outside the studio building to provide first aid and sort the injured.

Fire department officials told Reuters that more than 70 people were in the building at the time of the fire and many of them ran outside.

A fire in 2001 in Tokyo’s congested Kabukicho entertainment district killed 44 people in Japan’s worst known case of arson in modern times. Police never announced an arrest for setting the blaze, though five people were convicted of negligence. In 2008, 16 people died in a blaze at a movie theater in Osaka, near Kyoto.

(With inputs from Reuters)