TOKYO — The attacker screamed “Die!” and set alight flammable liquid he had splashed around an anime studio in Kyoto, police said, starting a blaze that killed 33 people Thursday in what appears to be Japan’s worst mass killing in decades.
Witnesses described scenes of horror: a man hanging from a ledge as flames licked the walls; a pile of bodies on a staircase leading to the roof; a barefoot woman so badly burned that all bystanders could do was spray her with water as they waited for help.
The attack shocked a nation considered one of the safest in the world and prompted a global outpouring of grief among the many fans of anime — a school of animation that has become synonymous with Japan.
Kyoto police said the suspect was a 41-year-old man, and Japanese newspapers reported that he had been detained and hospitalized for burns.
Although Japan has a very low rate of violent crime, there are eruptions of rare but extremely violent attacks. The fire, at the studio of Kyoto Animation, came just weeks after a man went on a stabbing rampage in a Tokyo suburb, attacking 17 schoolgirls, killing one of them and an adult.
Tokyo and its surroundings have suffered some of the worst violence. In 1995, members of a doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, carried out a nerve-gas attack on the city’s subway system, killing 13 people and injuring thousands with sarin. In 2016, a mass stabbing at a center for people with disabilities outside Tokyo became the worst mass killing in Japan since World War II.
The death toll of the Kyoto fire was higher than in either of those attacks. Three dozen people were injured in the blaze.
The attack touched a nerve among the Japanese public, and many poured out their grief on social media. The hashtag #prayforKyoAni had close to 260,000 tweets late Thursday evening. The studio has produced popular shows and movies, among them “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya,” “K-On” and “Clannad,” and has done contract work for the world-famous anime company Studio Ghibli.
There was little known Thursday about the man believed to have set the fire or his motives. According to NHK, the public broadcaster, he was hospitalized with burns and had told police he had splashed flammable liquid at the studio building and set it alight.
Citing Kyoto police, the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest mainstream daily newspapers, reported that the man had entered the building screaming “Die!” and then tried to escape but collapsed on the street outside. He was captured by members of the studio’s staff.
Arson is rare in Japan, and experts quoted by NHK said Thursday’s fire was the worst case in decades. In 2001, 44 people died after a fire broke out at a crowded gambling club in Tokyo’s busiest entertainment district. It was investigated as arson, but authorities could not confirm that the fire had been purposefully set.
The cultural reaction to Thursday’s fire reflected Kyoto Animation’s popularity among fans of anime, the category of Japanese cartooning that is a backbone of the country’s popular culture and one of its major soft-power exports.
Kyoto Animation — known as KyoAni among its fans — was founded by Yoko Hatta and her husband, Hideaki Hatta, in 1981, and most of the studio’s production takes place in the building that was the site of Thursday’s fire.
Whereas most major anime studios are based in Tokyo, Kyoto Animation chose to build its operations in a separate regional hub, one of Japan’s most popular cities among tourists, admired for its historical beauty.
The devastation at the studio, said fans, would rip a hole in the anime world.
“Would it get across to people who are not familiar with anime that the fire at Kyoto Animation studio is ‘a loss of culture,’ as if museums get destroyed by fire in an instant?” one wrote on Twitter.
Kyoto Animation distinguished itself by paying its workers salaries, rather than by assigning piecework, as many other studios do, said Susan Napier, an expert on Japanese animation at Tufts University.
Animation is “very hard work,” Napier said. “You’re usually overworked and underpaid and just killing yourself to get the product out, but Kyoto Animation was trying to be a more humane company.”
According to NHK, police are investigating a report by a clerk at a gas station about a quarter-mile from the studio who said a man in his 30s or 40s, wearing a red T-shirt and a backpack, bought about 10 gallons of gas at 10 a.m. Thursday. NHK reported that the man carried away the two gas cans on a hand cart, saying he would use them in a power generator.
NHK reported that an official at the Kyoto City Fire Department said that most of the 20 people who were found dead on the stairs that led from the third floor of the studio building to the rooftop were lying on top of one another right near the door to the roof. When rescuers reached the roof, the door was closed, though not locked.