Ancestors Day

Portrait of a woman in green; China, possibly Ming dynasty, 17th century?; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.186

Portrait of a woman in green; China, possibly Ming dynasty, 17th century?; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.186

China celebrates the Qingming Festival today. Also known as Grave Sweeping Day or Ancestors Day, it’s a time for families to visit the graves of their loved ones, making offerings to honor those who came before.

The image above, a hanging scroll known as Portrait of a woman in green, is an ancestor portrait, a type of painting used in rituals and family settings to commemorate deceased relatives. The woman’s strict, frontal pose, covered hands, and almost life-size depiction are all qualities typical of these works.

We don’t know who this woman was, but the items on the red lacquer table behind her give a sense of her personality. Writing brushes and books refer to her education. An incense burner and a small box to hold the incense suggest the fragrance of her study, while a sprig of bamboo and the cloudlike swirl of an auspicious fungus convey a wish for the immortality of her spirit.

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Portraits of this kind were not regarded as art but as ritual objects, and the artists were expected to efface themselves entirely from the image. Though the names of the painters of ancestor portraits were almost never recorded, they fulfilled a necessary role in Chinese society and existed in every community.

Several years ago, a group of teens studied how the tradition of ancestor worship continues today in some Chinese and Chinese-American communities. Through interviews, family stories, old photo albums, and video footage, they pieced together a look at present-day practices, including those for Qingming jie. 

One of the stories the teens captured was from a husband and wife who had a remarkable ancestral experience early in their relationship:

This story begins many years ago in Taiwan, when Kenneth Chiu and his wife, Carol, were dating. Kenneth and his family paid respects to their ancestors each year with ceremonies and offerings. One year, Carol happened to be visiting Kenneth during one of the ceremony days. She was a Christian and didn’t understand the significance of the rituals. Kenneth responded to her questions by asking for her ancestors’ names and their land of origin. Then he took some paper “spirit” money, sealed it in an envelope, and burned it as an offering to her ancestors.

The next morning, Carol’s mother, who had just arrived from China, began to talk about a strange thing that had just happened to her.

She first told Carol something that she had never mentioned before: ever since the death of her own mother (Carol’s grandmother), she had been haunted every year by her ghost. This happened on Qingming jie (Grave Sweeping Day). In the recurring dream, her mother stood before her, looking at her, but never saying a word. She was always wearing the clothes she had been buried in, now worn and tattered, and she was always frowning, seeming sad and unhappy. Every Qingming jie for twenty years, Carol’s mother had this dream.

Carol still hadn’t spoken a word before her mother continued with her story. The night before, the eve of Qingming jie, the dream had occurred again. The same spirit approached her, but this time her mother was smiling! She had a look of contentment and was richly garbed with glowing, beautiful robes. Carol’s mother finished her story with a look of awe on her face. Then Carol fully realized the importance of the paper “spirit” money that Kenneth had burned as an offering to her dead ancestors. Her grandmother, as a spirit, had acquired the money in the offering.

Arwa and Ahmed: An Interview with Two Saudi Art Stars

CNN included Ahmed Mater and Arwa Al Neami in its list of Saudi Arabia’s rising art stars a few years ago. Active artists when they met—and now husband and wife—Mater and Al Neami have continued to ascend. Al Neami became the first woman to photograph the Prophet’s Mosque, considered the Islamic world’s second-holiest site, in 2014. She also made international waves with her Never Never Land series, a moving look at how Saudi women manage to enjoy amusement parks despite the heavy restrictions imposed upon them.

Mater, considered among the most influential Saudi artists, attracted his own global attention with his piece Magnetism, an abstract interpretation of the hajj that was exhibited at the British Museum. And this year, Mater debuted Symbolic Cities in our galleries, the first US museum exhibition dedicated solely to his work. To mark the occasion, both artists visited Washington, DC, and sat down with me to chat about their work and their lives together.

Does your background as a medical doctor continue to influence your work?

Ahmed Mater: Yes, of course, because it’s about my life and journey. I think medicine falls between subjectivity and objectivity. Art does the same in my life. In my latest project, I try to explore the “intervention” with the cities, and I also call it the “prognosis” of the cities. I treat all of my projects and artwork maybe subconsciously from a medical approach. It’s a holistic approach.

Why do you think you were drawn to both art and medicine?

AM: I think it’s part of my journey. Maybe I chose it, or maybe it’s like destiny. But I manage both of them within one mission.

Why is it important for the public to see your images—particularly an American audience?

AM: I really believe in the common cultural product. When you go to Saudi Arabia, you see a lot of American life there, which is imported through the media, through commercials . . . It’s a common concern, the materialistic new life we are living now. We share that concern.

What is your favorite piece of the ones you’ve created recently?

AM: Maybe Leaves Fall in All Seasons, a film that was in the Berlin Film Festival and got a lot of attention from the critics and audiences. There is an experimental part where the film is taken by the workers themselves. I collected all of the clips from their mobile phones. [The film] has a new perspective from the people inside the construction in Mecca.

What kind of reaction did audiences have to the Never Never Land series? 

Arwa Al Neami: The first time they saw the video and the images, they loved it and were surprised. When they looked a second time, they felt sad. It’s sad because of all the rules [imposed on the women] . . . Many ladies have said to me, “Keep going, we are with you.” It changed my life because it made me think deeply about their emotion—how the rules are [increasing] and how the ladies still try to find a way to have fun. All of my artwork now is about the feelings of [women in Saudi Arabia]—how to be sexy and beautiful, how they have power even when they are covered.

Where is your art taking you now?

AAN: I have a new video called Red Lipstick. If you cover something, it becomes more sexy. If you cover just one finger and show the rest of the body naked, you want to try to see what’s on that one finger. I covered the face of my friend—she’s a Christian; it was her first time wearing the niqab . . . I put red lipstick on her, then covered her face. A fan blows up [the niqab], and you see the red lipstick becoming more and more sexy.

The other project is [based on] a fictional story. I wake up and I smell cardamom, like how my grandmother would crush it and put it in coffee in the morning. And there’s the sound of the crushing of the beans—the sound is really strong and beautiful. When you enter [the installation], you cannot see anything; you can just smell the cardamom and hear [women’s] voices. Many ladies enter and come out crying. They remember their grandmothers. The smell has a lot of memories for the Saudis.

What is daily life like in a home with two active artists?

AM: We share a studio, and we help other artists together. We started in the studio, Arwa and me, we started with this idea . . . Why don’t we find an old villa from the 1970s and renovate it and make it a hub for artists, for ladies and men together? . . . There’s a kitchen on the second floor, we make coffee, tea; sometimes we all make dinner together.

AAN: We spend all day in the studio. I have a couch, and people stay and sleep . . . We have between fifteen and twenty people every day, from local people to ambassadors.

AM: We have a small warehouse where people can debate, do standup comedy—they can test their work. . . . We call it Disney for artists.

What is the relationship between your work?

AM: It’s complementary. She talks about the issues that she feels [strongly about] and I try to cover those issues.

AAN: We try to find different approaches, which makes it more rich. . . .  It’s very important because some artists, when they work together for a long time, they clash.

AM: We try to make ourselves open to new approaches and exploration.

Prints Fit for a Dig

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of the mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of Cyrus the Great’s mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Why so blue? This “blue print” is an example of the cyanotype process, used throughout the twentieth century to make inexpensive copies of photographs and engineering drawings. Made from a glass plate negative that archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld took during his excavation at Pasargadae, the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, between 1905 and 1928, it shows the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great, who established the site.

Below, another of Herzfeld’s shots captured a rare view inside Cyrus’s tomb, which includes a small wall niche for a lamp. Reportedly, while Cyrus lay mummified in his golden coffin, his clothing was displayed around the chamber and local priests were paid a monthly allowance to stand guard. When the Greeks conquered Achaemenid Iran in 330 BCE, Cyrus’s mausoleum was looted, but the Macedonian conqueror Alexander ordered it to be refurbished in honor of the legendary king.

View through entrance from interior

View through entrance from interior

Making a cyanotype involves coating a piece of paper with chemicals, superimposing the negative on it, and exposing it to sunlight. Fine arts photographers avoided cyanotypes for their intense blue pigments and lack of fine detail. Produced on regular notebook paper, however, cyanotypes proved far more resilient in the rough conditions of an archaeological dig than delicate darkroom prints. Herzfeld’s cyanotypes survived the excavation and are now part of his archives here at the museum. See them in Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae, now on view.

Unraveling Our Objects’ Histories

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Some of our objects carry thousands of years of history—yet their past seventy-five years or so may be the most difficult to unravel. During the tumultuous years before and during World War II, the Nazi regime and its collaborators orchestrated a system of confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, and destruction of cultural objects on an unprecedented scale. Millions of art objects and other cultural items were unlawfully and often forcibly taken from their rightful owners. While many of these confiscated items were returned after the war, some continue to appear on the legitimate art market and make their way into private and public collections.

As part of the Smithsonian’s ongoing commitment to establish provenance (a fancy word for origins and ownership history) across its collections, for years we have been working on a comprehensive research project focused on our Asian artworks. Our latest development is an updated provenance page on which you can learn about our efforts—and about the major Asian art dealers, collectors, and galleries involved in many of our objects’ histories.

This marks a new innovation in World War II provenance research, in that it focuses not on the artworks themselves but on the way they moved through a network of individuals, businesses, and museums. Some fifty biographies are now available to the public. For example, you can learn about C. T. Loo (1880–1957), a Chinese art dealer from whom the museum acquired nearly four hundred works, including this Tang dynasty mirror in 1935. 

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The biographies are linked to their relevant objects with provenance records and related images. You’ll also find articles detailing auctions that were held in the critical years leading up to and during the World War II era. Together, this information reveals patterns of movement of Asian art that were previously hidden from researchers. And there’s more to come: we are planning to develop a tool that will incorporate the provenance data of partner institutions, helping us paint an even more complete picture of our collections’ past.

Elite Eight: March Sadness

A Japanese mask and a Chinese figure of a mourning attendance face off in round one of March Sadness.

A Japanese mask and a Chinese figure of a mourning attendance tearfully face off in round one of March Sadness.

If you’re going to be sad, you might as well be the best at it. We’re glumly kicking off our Elite Eight rounds of March Sadness. Head to our Facebook page to like (or better yet, react with a cry-face to) the contestant you find the most heartbreaking. Then, follow along with our bracket to track who wins … and loses. 🙁

A Man and His Dog . . . and His Boar

Ernst Herzfeld and Bulbul, his pet boar; Iran, ca. 1933; silver gelatin print; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.5.3.65c

Ernst Herzfeld and Bulbul, his pet boar; Iran, ca. 1933; silver gelatin print; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.5.3.65c

What would you name your pet boar? German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) went for a not-so-obvious choice, dubbing his trusty hog Bulbul, Persian for “nightingale.”

Herzfeld, known for his revelatory excavations in Pasargadae and Persepolis, among other ancient sites, was a rather serious scholar; some described him as exacting and reserved. Animals seemed to bring out another side of him. He even brought Bulbul along on his digs. Above, he’s feeding the boar in Persepolis, which the Iranian government asked him to document in 1924.

Ernst Herzfeld

Ernst Herzfeld

While in Iran, Herzfeld also kept a pet dog, a Welsh terrier named Romeo. The pup must have known how to win hearts. When he trod over an intricate drawing of a Persepolis structure by Herzfeld’s assistant Karl Bergner, leaving inky paw prints behind, no one seemed too upset. Bergner noted in German at the bottom of this 1935 work: “Romeo bumped into an inkpot and walked upon the drawing! The new drawing is already finished. Be(rgner).”

Persepolis (Iran), great stairway to the Terrace complex, plan and elevation by Karl Bergner, 1935 [drawing].

Persepolis (Iran), great stairway to the Terrace complex, plan and elevation by Karl Bergner, 1935

Visit Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae to learn more about the animal-loving archaeologist’s adventures in Iran.

Spring Has Sprung: Japan

Spring in Mount Atago, from the series Twelve Scenes of Tokyo; Kawase Hasui (1883–1957); Japan, Taisho era, 1921; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.623

Spring in Mount Atago, from the series Twelve Scenes of Tokyo; Kawase Hasui (1883–1957); Japan, Taisho era, 1921; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.623

It’s officially spring. In Japan, Vernal Equinox Day is a public holiday—a day to spend time with family and appreciate nature.

The annual cycle of the seasons has been integral to the lives and art of Japanese people since the earliest historical times. Naturally, seasonal associations permeate Japanese literature, art, and customs. The hazy moon of spring, for example, is called oborozuki, while the bright harvest moon of autumn is called meigetsu.

Oborozuki; Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912); Japan; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.2577

Oborozuki; Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912); Japan; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.2577

Intimate views of nature came to dominate representations of the seasons in Japanese art, with specific images associated with each. Early spring is evoked by blossoming plum and the first cry of the warbler; the brief, lush glory of cherry blossoms comes later that same season. Summer equates with abundant flowers and the call of the cuckoo; autumn with red maples, chrysanthemums, and geese in flight; and winter with frozen waters and falling snow.

Spring landscape with blossoming cherries; Japan, Edo period, early 17th century; six-panel screen, ink, color, and gold on paper; Gift of Mrs. Garnet Hulings, F1984.39

Spring landscape with blossoming cherries; Japan, Edo period, early 17th century; six-panel screen, ink, color, and gold on paper; Gift of Mrs. Garnet Hulings, F1984.39

Visit Open F|S to see spring represented throughout our collections of Asian and American art.

Ahmed Mater: A to Y

Antenna; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2010; cold cathode lighting; Courtesy of the artist and Athr

Antenna; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2010; cold cathode lighting; Courtesy of the artist and Athr

Get to know Ahmed Mater, whose work goes on view in Symbolic Cities tomorrow, through a glossary of key terms related to this singular Saudi artist.

  • Antenna (above): Mater, pictured with his glowing sculpture Antenna, was born in 1979 in the rugged Aseer region of southwestern Saudi Arabia.
  • British Museum: The London institution has acquired and exhibited Mater’s work.
  • clock tower: With the growing religious tourism industry, hotel rooms in the new Makkah Royal Clock Tower complex have come to dominate the skyline above the Great Mosque’s main sanctuary.
  • Desert of Pharan: In 2011, Mater began photographing Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia, for a series titled Desert of Pharan, referring to the ancient name for the area around the holy city.
  • The Empty Land: Mater’s first major photographic series, the Empty Land is inspired by nineteenth-century descriptions of the American West.
From the Real to the Symbolic City, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2012; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.5

From the Real to the Symbolic City, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2012; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.5

  • From the Real to the Symbolic City: This expansive view captures the extraordinarily dense population and traditional architecture that have characterized Mecca for centuries. Pushed to the outskirts, the old quarter disappears into a horizon obscured by heavy, gray haze, where the iconic clock tower looms like a beacon over the city under construction.
  • Golden Hour: A vast field of cranes stands in the perpetual glow of construction lights as the massive expansion of the Great Mosque takes shape and much of Mecca’s history is erased.
  • hajj: For more than a millennium, Mecca has hosted Muslims performing the hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage centered on the Kaaba, a cube-like building in the middle of the Masjid al-Haram (Great Mosque).
  • jamarat: Moving east to west, pilgrims reenact Abraham’s hajj by throwing seven pebbles against each of three pillars, known collectively as jamarat. In Mater’s photograph Human Highway, we can sense both the significance of this rite and the considerable risk posed by the overwhelming mass of people funneling in.
  • Kaaba: The structure at the center of the hajj and its pilgrims are represented in Mater’s Magnetism.
  • Leaves Fall in All Seasons: In this video—Mater’s vision of Mecca through the eyes of immigrant construction workers—a lone figure perches on the golden crescent that will crown the clock tower. The worker’s mundane task becomes spectacular, as he glides through the air “like an angel bringing a warning.”
  • Makkah/Mecca: Today, as Mater’s images show, Mecca is witnessing the largest transformation in its history. “Like few cities on earth, Makkah (Mecca) seems to buckle under the weight of its own symbolism,” he says. “It is a hallowed site revered by millions and a point of perpetual immigration. In recent years, it has begun to be recast, reworked, and ultimately reconfigured.”
Nature Morte, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2013; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.6

Nature Morte, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2013; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.6

  • Nature Morte: Inside the quiet luxury of a private hotel room overlooking the Great Mosque’s main sanctuary, Mater’s framing becomes a subtle commentary on how political and spatial changes are reinventing the center of the Islamic world.
  • Pelt Him!: The murmur of crowds and the continuous rhythm of pebbles striking a wall gently draw us into Mecca, one of the most restricted yet highly visited cities in the world. At several different points during the hajj, pilgrims perform this stone-throwing ritual, symbolizing stoning the devil or casting away temptations.
Crisis, from the series Ashab Al-Lal/ Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2015; wood slide viewer with glass slide; courtesy of the artist and Athr

Crisis, from the series Ashab Al-Lal/Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2015; wood slide viewer with glass slide; courtesy of the artist and Athr

  • Riyadh: Mater’s exploration of Saudi Arabia has led him toward Riyadh, the country’s administrative capital and largest city, and the roots of the social transformation that he is witnessing today. In his latest project, Ashab Al-Lal/Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years, Mater reimagines life in and around Riyadh and the Saudi Aramco compounds further east.
  • Symbolic Cities: This exhibition, the first in the United States solely dedicated to Mater, presents his visual and aural journeys observing economic and urban change in Saudi Arabia. In Mater’s words, the “real city” of Mecca is being replaced by a new “symbolic city.”
  • transformation: Now based in Jeddah, Mater experiments with a range of mediums in his search to understand the country’s rapid transition from an agrarian way of life to a powerful oil-based economy.
Between Dream and Reality, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); color photograph; courtesy of the artist

Between Dream and Reality, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); color photograph; courtesy of the artist

  • utopia: Observing one of the many billboards of the older city that mask construction sites, Mater considers Mecca as a living city that is constantly re-envisioned: “Dreams surround it . . . in the belief that Utopia can be created here. Yet time and again, as with every age of renovation, we live within a reality of drills, demolition, and destruction.”
  • workers: Along with Mecca’s evolving urban plan and its inhabitants, Mater observed the conditions of the many immigrant workers. His photograph Artificial Light Construction is an interior view of a new sanctuary space, framed by an endless expanse of scaffolding, that reinforces the extraordinary scale—and uniformity—of the changes taking place from the perspective of the workers rebuilding the city.
  • x-rays: Mater’s first experience with photography was shooting x-rays while working in a hospital. Compare those images to the ones in his Disarm series, in which Mater photographed Mecca through the cold light of a military helicopter’s night surveillance camera.
  • Yemeni border: As Mater explains of Antenna: “Standing on the dusty rooftop of my family’s traditional house in the southwest corner of Saudi Arabia, I would lift a battered TV antenna as far as I could toward the evening sky. Moving it slowly across the mountainous horizon, I searched for a signal from beyond the Yemeni border or across the Red Sea toward Sudan. . . . Like many of my generation in Saudi Arabia, I was seeking ideas, music, poetry—a glimpse of a different kind of life. This spirit of creative exploration, curiosity, and reaching out to communicate across the borders surrounding me have defined my journey as an artist.”

Turquoise Mountain: Jali Woodwork

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

Jali is the term for a latticed screen, which can be made of wood or stone. This screen usually has an ornamental pattern based on geometric designs. It is a style of work found across the Islamic world. In Morocco and much of the Middle East, this style of work is known as mashrabiyya, while in Afghanistan and South Asia it is known as jali.

Jali screens were used in many elements of traditional domestic and public architecture in Kabul. Areas such as Murad Khani and Asheqan-o-Arefan (restored by the Afgha Khan Trust for Culture) have excellent surviving examples of this work.

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

To make jali, a woodworker traces a geometric design onto paper, then cuts thin slivers of walnut or cedar wood with a fine saw. These pieces are matched to the tracing paper to ensure exact sizing before being fixed together with wood glue. The whole piece is then clamped to ensure a strong fit.

Turquoise Mountain has created large-scale jali works for international commissions, including the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, the Connaught Hotel in London, and a private house in upstate New York. In Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, master woodworker Nasser Mansouri has his own pieces on display. He explains in the exhibition text, “I started working on the restoration of historic buildings in Murad Khani in 2006. I learned so much by studying those buildings: the beautiful cedar wood carving on window frames; the latticework known as jali above doorways; the subtle method by which joints were put together without a nail in sight. The buildings became my teachers.”

Nasser Mansouri © by Tina Hager for TFBSO.

Nasser Mansouri © by Tina Hager for TFBSO.

Environmental Film Festival: From the Tundra to the Future

Taïga screens at 1 pm this Sunday at at the National Museum of American History, Warner Brothers Theater.

Taïga screens at 1 pm this Sunday at at the National Museum of American History, Warner Brothers Theater.

It’s a pleasure every year to participate in the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, the largest and longest-running festival of its kind in the United States. With dozens of screenings all over the DMV area, it is a kaleidoscopic survey of filmmakers addressing some of the most important issues facing the world today.

This year, our contribution is a double feature presented on March 20 in the National Museum of American History’s state-of-the-art Warner Brothers Theater. First up is Taïga, Hamid Sardar’s intimate, beautiful documentary about nomadic Mongolian sheepherders and the fragile ecosystem they inhabit. The screening is followed by a discussion with two Smithsonian experts on Mongolia: William Fitzhugh of the Arctic Studies Center and Paula T. DePriest of the Museum Conservation Institute. I hope you can join us for what promises to be a fascinating discussion.

After that comes something completely different. Sion Sono is famous as one of the bad boys of Japanese cinema, whose movies usually serve up heaping helpings of violence and sexual perversity. But The Whispering Star is something else entirely. Inspired by the devastation wrought by the Fukushima nuclear disaster (and partly filmed on location there), the film imagines a ruined future Earth, where the few remaining residents are so traumatized that a visiting robot must speak in a whisper lest she scare them away. Far from a glum dystopian fantasy, Sono’s film is an imaginative, often amusing, and, dare I say, even cute sci-fi parable. Shhhh!