Japan, considered as one of the world’s safest nations, has been jolted to its foundations with Thursday’s horrific disaster in an animation studio in Kyoto. This is the cruellest irony of the fire at Kyoto Animation, one that spells the difference between an accident and premeditated murder, the outcome of an extreme form of mental aberration. With 33 killed and many more incapacitated, the blaze was ignited by a man, screaming “You die”. And “die” they did in the worst mass killing in decades, one that has prompted a global outpouring of grief, especially among fans of anime ~ a school of animation that has become synonymous with Japan.
The attack shook a country still reeling from a stabbing rampage in a Tokyo suburb just weeks ago. At the highest level of governance, the rampage has been greeted with a sense of disbelief. “I am at a loss for words,” was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s immediate response.
Although Japan has a very low rate of violent crime, there are eruptions of rare but extremely violent attacks. In May, a man stabbed 17 schoolgirls, killing one of them and an adult. In 1995, members of a doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, carried out a nerve-gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system, killing 13 people and injuring thousands. And in 2016, a mass stabbing at a centre for people with disabilities outside the city became the worst massacre in Japan since World War II.
The death toll in Thursday’s fire in Kyoto was higher than in any of those attacks, and nearly rivaled that of a fire in 2001 that killed 44 people in a crowded gambling club in Tokyo’s entertainment district. That fire was investigated as possible arson, but the authorities could not confirm that it had been deliberately set.
The latest tragedy can also be attributed to arson and deliberately so, carried out by an individual driven by calculated malevolence. The reaction to the fire of the cultural glitterati reflected Kyoto Animation’s popularity among fans of anime, the genre of Japanese cartooning that is integral to the country’s popular culture and one of its major “soft-power” exports.
Apart from the 33 casualties till Friday morning, the enormity of the tragedy is bound to have a severe impact on Japan’s vigorous culture, specifically the animation industry. Small wonder that the incident has touched a raw nerve among the people. Within minutes of the mass murder, the studio, called Kyoto Animation, was a scene 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 a bystander could do was spray her with water and wait for help.
Though the assassin has been arrested and admitted to hospital with burns, the provocation for the malignity may not be known for a while. No, it wasn’t a case of motiveless malignity.