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Man admits starting fire at Japanese animation studio that killed 36 people

A general overview of the Kyoto Animation studio building hit by a fire  killing dozens of people, in Kyoto on 20 July 2019 (AFP via Getty Images)
A general overview of the Kyoto Animation studio building hit by a fire killing dozens of people, in Kyoto on 20 July 2019 (AFP via Getty Images)

A man has pleaded guilty to starting a fire at a popular animation studio in Japan that killed 36 people in what prosecutors said was a “revenge” crime.

The Japanese man’s defence team, however, entered a not guilty plea in the trial that began on Tuesday, claiming the accused was mentally incompetent.

The trial will now focus on the motive of 45-year-old Shinji Aoba and whether he can be held criminally liable for the 2019 studio blaze that had sent shockwaves across the country.

The trial had been long delayed to give the accused time to recover from serious burns sustained in the attack.

Mr Aoba faces five charges, including murder, attempted murder and arson for setting Kyoto Animation’s No 1 studio ablaze on 18 July 2019.

Prosecutors claim he carried out the crime in “revenge”, thinking Kyoto Animation had stolen one of his novels, which he had submitted for a company contest, reports said.

Mr Aoba appeared before the Kyoto district court in a wheelchair on Tuesday and wearing a surgical mask, Japanese media reported.

In his statement, the defendant said the attack was all he could think about at the time and that he never thought so many people would die. He now thinks he went too far, he said, according to the reports.

“I felt I had no other option but to do what I did,” he said in court, reported BBC. “I didn’t think so many people would die and now I think I went too far.”

Mr Aoba nearly died in the attack, suffering severe burns on 90 per cent of his body, including on his face, torso and limbs. He was unconscious for weeks and treated for 10 months at a hospital specialising in burns, where he underwent several skin transplant operations that saved him, police said.

He was last publicly seen on a stretcher at the time of his arrest in May 2020, after the 10-month hospitalisation.

Prosecutors waited another six months for the results of a psychiatric evaluation before pressing formal charges. They said he was mentally fit to stand trial, while Mr Aoba’s defence lawyers argued him to be mentally unfit to be held criminally responsible.

This 19 July 2019 picture shows a resident praying for victims of a fire which hit the Kyoto Animation studio building the day before, killing 33 people, in Kyoto (AFP via Getty Images)
This 19 July 2019 picture shows a resident praying for victims of a fire which hit the Kyoto Animation studio building the day before, killing 33 people, in Kyoto (AFP via Getty Images)

About 70 people were working inside the studio in southern Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, at the time of the attack.

One of the survivors, an animator, said he saw a black mushroom cloud rising from downstairs, after which scorching heat came and he jumped from a window of the three-story building gasping for air.

Experts said they believe many died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The company, founded in 1981 and better known as KyoAni, made a mega-hit anime series about high school girls and trained aspirants to the craft.

The attack shocked Japan and drew an outpouring of grief from anime fans worldwide. It was Japan’s deadliest fire since 2001, when a blaze in Tokyo’s congested Kabukicho entertainment district killed 44 people.

People wait in line for tickets to attend the first trial of Shinji Aoba, the defendant in the Kyoto Animation arson murder case (JIJI Press/AFP via Getty Images)
People wait in line for tickets to attend the first trial of Shinji Aoba, the defendant in the Kyoto Animation arson murder case (JIJI Press/AFP via Getty Images)

At the time of the incident, Japan’s then-prime minister Shinzo Abe described it as “too appalling for words”.

On Tuesday, 500 people lined up outside of the court to vie for 35 public seats available in the courtroom for the first hearing. There will be 30 more trial sessions this year before a verdict, expected in January.

“As an anime fan, I thought it was my mission to come here,” a male university student in his 20s told Japan’s public media service, NHK.

“If he has owned up to the charges, I hope he will apologize for it.”

Additional reporting by agencies