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Updated: 8th December 2019 15:35 World

Suspect ID'd in Japan as fans mourn at animation studio arson site

A man suspected of torching an animation studio and killing 33 people in Japan's worst mass killing in two decades had been convicted of robbery and carried out the attack because he believed his novel had been plagiarized, according to media reports.

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Suspect Shinji Aoba had a previous robbery conviction but no apparent connection to Kyoto Animation

A fan of Kyoto Animation cries as she visits the area near the studio's building in Kyoto on Friday that was set ablaze earlier this week. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

A man suspected of torching an animation studio and killing 33 people in Japan's worst mass killing in two decades had been convicted of robbery and carried out the attack because he believed his novel had been plagiarized, according to media reports Friday.

Public broadcaster NHK, which identified the 41-year-old man as Shinji Aoba, citing police, said he had served time in prison for robbing a convenience store east of Tokyo in 2012 and, after his release, lived in facilities for former convicts. He had also received care for mental illness, NHK said.

The attack on Thursday in the ancient capital of Kyoto targeted the well-known studio Kyoto Animation and left 10 people in critical condition, authorities said. None of the victims' identities had been disclosed as of Friday. 

Aoba was under anesthesia because of burns he suffered and police were unable to question him, Nippon TV said.

It's the worst mass killing since a suspected arson attack in Tokyo killed 44 people in 2001, in a country with one of the world's lowest crime rates.

A number of people gathered Friday in the rain near the charred three-storey studio in the western Japanese city, at the edge of a cordon up by police and fire officials.

"It's hard to put into words how I feel," said Yuichi Kumami, 27, a self-described animation fan who had taken time off work at his company in nearby Osaka to lay flowers at the site.

"They may not be able to produce the same kind of works again and it was my hope that there would be more memorable works in the future, but that may be impossible now and that is very saddening," he said, his voice cracking with emotion.

A man pays respect outside the Kyoto Animation building. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

A pillar of Japanese popular culture, animation has become a major cultural export, winning fans around the world. Kyoto Animation has an outsized role in the industry, with its influence outstripping the list of works it has produced.

Aoba "seemed to be discontented, he seemed to get angry, shouting something about how he had been plagiarized," a woman who saw him being detained told reporters.

Travelled cross-country by train

Local resident Kazuko Yoshida, 78, said she lived close to the site and had smelt smoke on Thursday. From her second-floor window, she saw smoke and helicopters.

"I wonder why the company was targeted, why those people had to be caught up in this. It sounds like the man who did it wanted to die," she said.

"If he wanted to die he should have died alone, why did he have to involve other people? He is a terrible person."

Tributes to the victims lit up social media, with world leaders and Apple Inc's chief executive offering condolences.

An anime cartoon drawing is laid with flowers and tributes near the Kyoto Animation Co. studio building. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described the incident as 'too appalling for words'. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Aoba, a resident of the Tokyo suburb of Saitama, some 480 kilometres east of Kyoto, was believed to have bought two 20-litre cans at a hardware store and prepared the petrol in a park near the studio, Nippon TV said.

He travelled to the area by train, the broadcaster said.

NHK showed footage of him lying on his back as he spoke to a police officer at the time of his detention, shoeless and with apparent burns on his right leg below the knee.

He had no connection with Kyoto Animation, NHK said.

One 23-year-old university student paid his respects before going to his lessons. He said he was a fan of anime.

"You hear about gun killings overseas, but anyone can get their hands on gasoline and that is pretty frightening," he said. "You can't stop people from buying gasoline, perhaps there's a way to offer help to people who might be tempted to commit crimes."

One local man, 82, passing by on his bicycle said he previously lived in the neighbourhood.

"There was no fire escape on the outside of the building and I think that was a big reason why so many people died," he said.

"There was only one way for them to escape."

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