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The Dark Path of Shinji Aoba and the Kyoto Animation Arson Attack

A Life Marred by Tragedy

Shinji Aoba was 41 years old at the time of the events and lived alone in Tokyo. He had a very complicated life. His grandfather, father, and sister all took their own lives in three different situations. His grandfather, diagnosed with cancer and lacking funds for treatment, decided to end his suffering by taking his own life. His father, abandoned by Shinji’s mother, who ran off with a lover, later had an accident that left him unable to work. Frustrated and without a sense of purpose, he, too, took his own life.

Ten years after his father’s death, Shinji’s sister moved to a temple to dedicate herself to religion. After some time, she began to claim that she was being pursued by a spirit and even underwent an exorcism ritual. However, convinced that the spirit hadn’t left her, she also took her own life.

Isolation and Criminal History

This completely tragic reality since childhood certainly influenced a lot in the decisions Shinji would make in the future, however, nothing can justify the unforgivable crime he committed.

Today we will talk about the case of Shinji Aoba and how his path crossed in a completely unfortunate way with the Kyoto Animation studio.

Shinji spent most of his life alone, living by himself, and had little contact with others. He had no friends, and neighbors described him as reclusive, quiet, and unconcerned about his appearance and personal hygiene. He was arrested at the age of 16 for stealing underwear from his neighbors’ clotheslines. When he was released, his mother provided financial support, but he could never hold down a job and frequently changed positions.

As an adult, in 2012 at the age of 34, he was arrested again after committing a robbery at a convenience store in Ibaraki, using a knife. This resulted in a 3.5-year prison sentence. Over the years, he also got into altercations with neighbors due to his irritation with what they purportedly considered noise. During these fights, Shinji displayed violent behavior, even threatening his neighbors with death.

The Terrifying Day of the Arson Attack

Shinji’s already tragic and troubled life took an even darker turn in 2019. On July 18, 2019, the building housing the Kyoto Animation animation studio in Kyoto, Japan, was the victim of an arson attack. The studio, known as KyoAni, had been founded in 1981 by Hideaki and Yoko Hatta, the president and vice-president, respectively. It was renowned for its work, including the series “Violet Evergarden” and the 2016 film “A Silent Voice” which won the Japan Movie Critics Awards for Best Animation.

Approximately 70 people were in the Kyoto Animation facilities that day when, around 10:30 a.m., Shinji Aoba entered the three-story building and poured 40 liters of gasoline on the floor just inside the entrance. During the act, he shouted the word “Die” and then struck a match, igniting the fire. Witnesses reported that the flames spread rapidly, leading to the mobilization of about 40 fire trucks to contain the fire. Tragically, 36 people lost their lives, and 32 were injured as a result of this tragedy.

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Shinji Aoba carried the gasoline on foot for about 6 miles to reach the studio. Police suspect that the spilled gasoline at the scene mixed with the air, resulting in an immediate explosion. In addition to pouring the fuel on the floor, Shinji Aoba also poured gasoline on some people, including himself, which caused them to flee in flames into the streets.

As the flames spread at the entrance, employees were trapped inside the building. Twenty bodies were found on the third-floor stairs as they attempted to escape toward the roof, desperately indicating their efforts to survive. Dr. Tomoaki Nishono, an Associate Professor at the Institute for Disaster Prevention Research at Kyoto University, estimated that the second and third floors filled with smoke in less than 30 seconds after the explosion.

The Devastating Aftermath and Rescue Efforts

The suspect managed to flee the crime scene but was pursued by two Kyoto Animation employees and eventually collapsed in the street, where he was detained by the police. The fire was brought under control around 3:19 p.m. and extinguished by 6:20 a.m. the next day. After rescue operations, all studio employees were accounted for.

Around 10 p.m., the Fire and Disaster Management Agency issued a report confirming the complete destruction of the building. It’s important to note that the building was not equipped with automatic sprinklers or internal hydrants due to its classification as a small commercial building. However, it had no fire safety deficiencies during its last inspection on October 17, 2018. Contrary to initial reports, the studio’s entrance did not require employee cards as the door typically remained open during business hours.

The arson attack resulted in the destruction of most of the materials and computers in Kyoto Animation’s Studio 1. However, a small part of the keyframes was preserved, as they were on display in Tokushima.

Motives Unveiled: Revenge and Claims of Plagiarism

The fire is considered one of the deadliest massacres in Japan’s history since the end of World War II and the deadliest fire in a structure in the country since the 2001 Myojo 56 building fire. The attack was classified as “suicide terrorism” by a criminology professor at Rissho University, given the suspect’s claim that he committed the incident with the intention of committing suicide alongside it.

As reported by local residents, a man resembling Aoba was seen near the studio a few days before the incident. After the attack, Aoba was transported to the hospital with severe burns on his legs, chest, and face. During the journey to the hospital, he confessed to starting the fire, possibly as an act of revenge, claiming that the studio had “plagiarized” his work. In 2017 and 2018, Shinji submitted his ideas to a Kyoto fan writing contest, hoping they might be turned into an anime by the studio, but his submissions didn’t progress past the first stage.

In October 2018, he watched an anime produced by the studio and believed it closely resembled his ideas. He became furious, thinking that they had stolen his ideas without giving him credit. He sent over 200 anonymous emails to Kyoto, threatening an attack. The police were alerted and kept an eye on him for a while but eventually believed it was okay to stop monitoring him.

Shinji, who lived in Tokyo, traveled to Kyoto by bullet train three days before the attack without taking anything with him. He stayed in a hotel near the building and in the following days purchased a cart to transport gasoline, ultimately deciding to act on July 18.

Initially, Kyoto Animation’s President, Hatta, stated that there were no records of submissions by Aoba to the company’s annual writing contest. However, Kyoto Animation later clarified that they had received a book sketch from the suspect, but it hadn’t passed the first evaluation phase, and its content bore no resemblance to the studio’s published works.

Legal Proceedings: From Hospital Bed to Life Imprisonment

Due to the severity of the burns suffered during the incident, Aoba was transferred to a university hospital in Osaka for additional treatment, including skin graft surgery. On September 5, 2019, it was reported that Aoba was no longer at risk of life, although he still required intensive care and mechanical ventilation. On September 18, it was announced that Aoba had regained the ability to speak and, on October 8, he began his rehabilitation process, managing to sit in a wheelchair and engage in short conversations.

The police had issued an arrest warrant but awaited medical clearance to determine if Aoba could withstand detention. On November 14, 2019, Aoba was transferred to another hospital in Kyoto for the final stage of his rehabilitation. Aoba significantly recovered from his injuries, expressing remorse and gratitude to the hospital staff who cared for him exceptionally. However, he informed the police that he set fire to the studio because he believed they had plagiarized his work and that he hoped to receive the death penalty for it.

Most of Aoba’s burned skin was replaced with artificial skin in an experimental procedure, as burn victims received priority in human skin donations. This marked the first case of using artificial skin for such severe burns in Japan. As of January 2020, Aoba remained hospitalized, depending on assistance for simple tasks like getting up and eating.

On May 27, 2020, Aoba was deemed to have sufficiently recovered from his burns, leading to his formal arrest on five charges: homicide, attempted homicide, arson, property violation, and violation of the firearms control law. Aoba’s defense claimed that he suffered from mental disorders, a strategy to avoid a possible death penalty, despite an evaluation commissioned by prosecutors stating that he was mentally fit to stand trial. It appears that Shinji was indeed sentenced to life imprisonment instead of the death penalty, and he remains in prison, where he is expected to stay for the rest of his life.

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