• Crime & Courts

Victims’ Families Hope KyoAni Arsonist will Explain His Actions

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kyozo Takahashi holds a picture that his son, Hiroyuki, drew while attending a vocational school, at his home in Kobe on Wednesday.

Relatives and friends of the people who died in last year’s arson attack on the Kyoto Animation Co. studio hope the suspect will explain why he started the deadly blaze, although some still doubt he will reveal his true feelings during the trial.

Prosecutors on Wednesday indicted Shinji Aoba on murder and other charges in connection with the July 2019 attack that killed 36 people and injured dozens more.

“I want to hear him say in his own words why he caused this incident,” 77-year-old Kyozo Takahashi said after hearing about the indictment. Takahashi’s son, Hiroyuki, was 48 when he died in the fire.

Hiroyuki joined Kyoto Animation in 1992 and was in charge of drawing pictures of machines and accessories. When a movie Hiroyuki had been involved in was completed, he would give his father tickets.

“I feel more sadness than disgust for the suspect,” Kyozo said, adding that he cannot erase a lingering doubt that “perhaps this incident could have been prevented.”

On the day before the attack, Aoba purchased large gasoline cans and a bucket, loaded them on a cart and pushed them to the vicinity of the studio. “If only somebody had noticed and alerted the authorities,” Kyozo said. That thought has never left his mind.

In September, Kyozo watched “Violet Evergarden,” the first movie Kyoto Animation completed after the arson attack. Hiroyuki had been involved with this film. When Hiroyuki’s name appeared in the credits at the end of the movie, the thought of him working closely with his colleagues brought a tear to his father’s eye.

Kyozo wants to deliver a statement through the victim participation system at Aoba’s trial.

“I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have gone through,” Kyozo said. “I want the trial to ensure that an incident like this never happens again.”

■ Low expectations

According to investigative sources, Aoba has responded to police questioning after his arrest, but he has not made any apology to the victims or indicated any remorse for his actions.

On Wednesday, the parents of Naomi Ishida, a 49-year-old color designer who perished in the attack, placed rice and tea on the Buddhist altar in their home and reported that Aoba had been indicted.

Ishida’s 79-year-old mother admitted that she expected to get little from the trial. “I think he won’t say anything about his true feelings. I don’t expect anything from him,” she said.

When asked about Ishida, her mother choked up. “It makes me cry, so I don’t want to remember what happened,” she said.

The siblings of a female employee who died in the fire released a message to Aoba through a proxy lawyer, saying: “Your words hold an important significance for us. Don’t turn your eyes from the actions you committed and speak in your own words. Please do not live irresponsibly until the time your trial ends.”

Kyoto Animation President Hideaki Hatta described his ongoing sadness over the incident in a statement issued Tuesday. “Every single employee believes that continuing to create anime will lead to a better tomorrow,” the statement said. “The lives that were lost and the harm caused can never be undone. My heart aches when I think about my employees who fell victim to this attack, and the devastation felt by the people close to them.”

■ Aoba may stay on stretcher

A pretrial arrangement procedure that narrows down the issues to be contested is held for lay-judge trials. Some previous cases that involved multiple deaths have taken over two years, so it is possible that Aoba’s first hearing might not take place for years.

Aoba’s health is also being closely watched, as he suffered burns to more than 90% of his body in the blaze. After being detained near the studio, his life was saved by cutting-edge operations that transplanted skin cultivated from Aoba’s own skin cells.

According to investigative sources, Aoba had little desire to begin his rehabilitation while he was in the hospital before his arrest. “I’ll get the death penalty anyway,” Aoba reportedly said. However, Aoba has regained his appetite, and when questioned by police he adjusts his recliner bed so he faces them. Aoba reportedly still struggles to sit up and eat by himself.

If Aoba does not fully recover before his trial begins, it is possible he could be wheeled into court while lying on a stretcher. Experts have said it is doubtful whether a defendant who cannot sit up unaided can properly understand the content of their trial, and that it would be better to wait until he recovers enough to at least sit in a wheelchair.