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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Empress of ennui beloved in Japan

Riches failed to comfort Austria's Elizabeth

Staff writer

She was a caged wife with an insatiable thirst for love and freedom. She was a famed beauty and fitness freak. She defied royal protocol and was often at odds with conservatives around her, including her mother-in-law.

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Eye-catcher: Visitors regard enlarged photos of Empress Elizabeth on the entrance wall of the Sisi Museum in Vienna. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTO

No, we're not talking about the late Princess Diana here, or making a pitch for a (quasi-fictional) novel inspired by Japan's current Crown Princess Masako.

However, Austria's Empress Elizabeth (1837-1898) — popularly known during her lifetime as Sisi — strikingly shares more than mere royalty with those other two aristocratic female icons. And more than a century after her assassination by an Italian anarchist, Elizabeth — like the late lamented Diana — still attracts hordes of admirers in Japan, especially among women.

As a result, the Sisi Museum, housed in Vienna's venerable Hofburg Imperial Palace, is a must-see attraction for many Japanese tourists, who numbered around 16,000 last year and comprised some 4 percent of the palace's visitor total. While there, most also check out the Imperial Apartments in the palace and inspect its Silver Collection, which showcases treasures used by generations of the Habsburg family.

Opened in 2004, the Sisi Museum gives visitors a good glimpse into Empress Elizabeth's turbulent 61-year life. At its entrance, blown-up images of several photos of her from different eras hang on the wall, revealing how the young girl from the Kingdom of Bavaria (now in Germany) transformed into the unrivaled European beauty of her day.

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While this 1865 painting of the German-born Austrian beauty by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. © PHOTOBUSINESS/ ARTOTHEK

But Sisi's allure is tinged with frailty and vulnerability; her anguish and loneliness emanates from those frozen moments captured long ago in black and white.

Sisi's tragedy began when, at the tender age of 15, she married the young Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I. The handsome monarch insisted on marrying her over her older sister Helene, to whom it had been arranged he would be betrothed. But Sisi, who loved riding horses, did not enjoy being confined in the court, where she had no freedom and where producing heirs was considered her top priority. Then, after she gave birth to the requisite number of male offspring, her mother-in-law took the babies away from her in order to supervise their upbringing.

After that, Sisi started to travel from city to city across Europe in search, she said, of cures for various ailments. Widely believed to be suffering from depression, she also became obsessed with her own beauty, checking her weight three times a day and cutting meals if she gained even only a little bit, said Evelin Saito-Lackner, a local tour guide.

During this reporter's recent visit to the museum, Saito-Lackner also pointed to a big folding fan on display and explained that after she turned 30, Sisi used it to hide her face from the public — worried that people would gossip about her youthful beauty fading.

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Shows her wearing her famed diamond- studded star- shaped hair ornaments, and this life-size statue of her in the museum (below) reveals her amazingly narrow waist. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTO

Other items on display include a life-size statue of Sisi wearing Hungarian traditional costume — testament, Saito-Lackner said, to the fact that as an "outsider" married into the Austro-Hungarian imperial family, she felt an affinity with Hungarians, many of whom were seeking independence from what they regarded as the oppressive Habsburg monarchy.

The royal couple rarely spent time together even though they lived in the same palace.

A walk through the couple's private quarters shows that their bedrooms were separate, and every time Franz Joseph wanted to meet his own wife he had to send a messenger, who would then walk over to Elizabeth's room and ring a doorbell to check if she was available.

Despite Sisi's contribution as a tourism draw, however, Saito-Lackner said that Austrians have mixed feelings about her.

"She refused to work for the country, or to attend official functions, but she enjoyed all the privileges of her position," she said. "To Austrians, she is viewed as a spoiled empress who came from poor German aristocracy. I think citizens could tell from her attitude that she hated Vienna and that's why she spent so much time traveling."

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Where Elizabeth lived her lonely life of luxury, include a statue of her in a traditional Hungarian dress. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTO

In contrast, however, Sisi's image in Japan is nothing but positive, with many adoring her glamorous lifestyle and sympathizing with her feelings of loneliness, said Yoko Yamato, a Europe-specific editor of Japanese-language guidebooks at Tokyo-based publishing house Shobunsha Publications, Inc.

"Many Japanese women who feel trapped in their families and isolated seem to empathize with the story of Empress Elizabeth," Yamato said. "Sisi fans in Japan often have husbands like Franz Joseph, who work long hours and come home only late at night."

Japanese have come to know the story of this bygone central European empress through the many musicals featuring her life that have been staged here since the first production, "Elizabeth," by the famed Takarazuka women-only revue in 1996. Meanwhile, Toho Co., another major theater company, is currently scheduling its own production from August until October themed on her life and her family.

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Splendid isolation: Exhibits in the Hofburg imperial palace. © SCHLOSS SCHONBRUNN KULTUR - UND BETRIEBSGES.M.B.H./KNAACK

"The first show was a smash success here," Yamato said about the 1996 musical. "That was largely due to the impact of her story itself. The mix of rock and classical music in that production also made it more easily accepted by younger audience members. Consequently, the Sisi boom became a social phenomenon."

As if on cue right after Yamato's explanation, I immediately spotted one such Sisi fan at the museum, a 21-year-old college student from Tokyo named Megumi Ayabe. She had traveled to Vienna with a group package tour to Austria, Germany and eastern Europe and had only a little free time to herself that day. Having chosen to use those few hours to visit the Sisi Museum, she excitedly said she enjoyed it very much.

"I'm very happy with what I have seen today," she said. "The palace is so gorgeous, and I've learned how carefree and tomboyish Elizabeth used to be."

Austrian Airlines, code-sharing with ANA, flies nonstop from Tokyo's Narita Airport to Vienna in 12 hours. The Sisi Museum is part of the Hofburg Imperial Palace. The museum, along with the Imperial Apartments and the Silver Collection, are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:50 p.m. from September to June and till 6 p.m. in July and August. Admission is 9.90 euro for adults and 5.90 euro for children aged 6-18. For more information, call +43-1-533 75 70 or visit www.hofburg-wien.at/en/

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