Old Friend Breathes New Life into KyoAni Arson Victim’s Picture Book; Japan’s Veteran Voice Actors, Animators Create Anime Film

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Toshiyuki Honda greets visitors at an anime film preview screening in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on March 24.

A picture book drawn 37 years ago by one of the victims of the July 2019 arson attack on a Kyoto animation studio has been turned into an anime film thanks to the determined effort of a former colleague.

From a specially produced DVD
Yoshiji Kigami

Yoshiji Kigami, who was 61 when he died in the blaze at the studio of Kyoto Animation Co., or KyoAni, was considered a “genius” in the anime industry and helped solidify the foundations of the company. His former colleague, Toshiyuki Honda, 73, and others involved in the project hope the film will be screened across Japan to showcase Kigami’s talent, which was cut short by the horrific attack that killed 36 people.

In 1979, Kigami was still a student at a vocational school when he began working at Shin-ei Animation Co., a Tokyo-based anime production company known for popular programs including Doraemon. Three years later, Kigami and Honda, a senior animator at Shin-ei, and several other employees branched out and established the anime company now known as Ekura Animal. Kigami’s skillful drawings earned rave reviews within the industry, and he participated in several well-known productions including “Grave of the Fireflies,” the animated film produced by Studio Ghibli, and “Akira.”

In 1987, Kigami wrote a picture book about an apprentice magician boy and a goblin because he “wanted to make something that resonated in children’s hearts.” Titled “Small Jam and Opp the goblin,” the story portrays the growth of the young magician through his interactions with the creature.

Only 1,000 copies of the book were made, with Kigami paying the publishing costs out of pocket. Kigami created a manuscript for a sequel and the company was considering turning the story into an anime. However, this was never realized because Kigami made the jump to KyoAni in 1991 to be closer to his mother, who lived alone in Osaka.

Courtesy of Ekura Animal
A scene from an anime based on Yoshiji Kigami’s book about a young apprentice magician and a goblin.

After hearing that Kigami had died in the fire, Honda remembered the picture book he had written. Honda decided to turn the book into an anime, as Kigami had hoped to do, and reached out to others willing to lend a hand.

Among the people who offered to help were veteran voice actors and animators in their 60s and 70s, including 77-year-old Eiichi Nakamura, who had been the animation director for the Doraemon TV show. With Honda as the director, production started in summer 2023 and culminated in an anime film about 17 minutes long.

A Chinese information technology company provided financial support for the production costs. A preview screening was held in Tokyo on March 24, and a DVD containing the anime was presented to Kigami’s family.

In January, the Kyoto District Court sentenced Shinji Aoba to death for the arson attack after finding him guilty of charges including murder. Aoba, 45, is appealing the ruling.

“Even if a ruling is handed down, Kigami won’t be able to come back and draw pictures again,” Honda said. “It’s our job to make sure that many people watch this anime that he didn’t get to make a reality.”

The anime was released online in China in March, but a release date in Japan has yet to be set. “I want to go around Japan and convey Kigami’s feelings to many children,” said Honda.