Once in every chapter of Ririko Tsujita’s comic manga The Secret Notes of Lady Kanoko (Tokyopop) our title heroine makes the following declaration about herself: “I am the only completely objective observer in this story.” That arrogant statement is the series’ central joke, of course. The self-styled middle school social anthropologist isn’t objective at all, but a judgmental outsider viewing the junior high world with a decidedly cynical eye. “In order to be a true observer, you can’t let yourself like or dislike any one at all,” she states, though her propensity toward putting a negative spin on everything her classmates do keeps her from recognizing genuine niceness, say, when it presents itself.
To be sure, Lady K. is right more often than not: writer/artist Tsujita has a sharp eye for the status wars of school life. Each chapter, Kanoko improbably transfers to a new school and immediately starts field observing her fellow classmates. In one chapter opening, for instance, she notes how all the other girl students in the cafeteria are working to sabotage their friends’ diets. Nothing is made of this detail beyond its use to reinforce Kanoko’s belief that “girl culture is terrifying,” but there are plenty of these types of trenchant observations sprinkled through the series.
Our heroine hits four schools in the first volume — with a respite return to the first as the book’s final chapter — but at least one other character reappears throughout the book: dreamy third year Haru Tsubaki, who works behind the scenes in one chapter to throw the spotlight on a sleazily manipulative teacher. Though Kanoko asserts repeatedly that she has no interest in the dating game, we (and Tsubaki) can glimpse the start of a bigger relationship. For now, at least, the focus remains on charting the paths of her peers: the young girl who foolishly falls for the smooth-talking teacher, the nerdy Jane who attempts to do a glamour makeover of herself as part of her “Princess Mermaid Plan,” the purported would-be artist with an incorrectly elevated view of her own talents — all part of the heightened emotional dramedy that unfolds in Kanoko’s world.
Artist Tsujita treats her material with a predominately light hand, even when the emotions are riding high — reflecting, to a certain degree, her observer protagonist’s intentional self-distancing from the events being portrayed. She crams a lot of small visual and written jokes into her occasionally over-busy school panels, some of which most likely come off better in her native culture than they do here, though a few are universally silly enough to work for the American audience. (In one panel, for instance, the artist inserts a box alerting us that Kanoko’s “observer sense is tingling.”) It helps that her heroine is wholeheartedly herself: a smart sardonic outsider with fleeting moments of empathy that she does her best to subdue. She certainly is one of the more entertaining shojo heroines to come around in a while.