The Secret Notes of Lady Kanako by Ririko Tsujita Volume 1
This manga mash-up of Harriet the Spy and Mean Girls ends up being a great read due to a uniquely acerbic heroine and the unexpected friendships that she finds. It is obvious that The Secret Notes of Lady Kanako was originally intended to be a stand-alone short story that was expanded later on because the first chapter has a very self-contained conclusion. Kanako holds herself apart from her classmates because she’s entertained by the idea of being the perfect outside observer. Her notebook is full of detailed notes about the behavior and secrets of the kids that surround her even though they don’t really know she exists. The focus of her current research are the boys and girl that are the most popular students in the school. Haru is the most handsome boy in school, but his beauty is combined with a somewhat sadistic personality. The prettiest girl in school is Momoka, who is nursing a crush on Haru. Haru encourages her crush just because he wants to see Tota, the boy who is hopelessly in love with Momoka, squirm in agony. Kanako sits back and watches the drama unfold, but her notes are discovered and she soon finds herself growing closer to her observation subjects than she originally intended.
Kanako finds herself gradually won over by Momoka’s innocent gestures of friendship and her stoic response to bullying from the other girls in the class. Since Momoka won’t do anything to defend herself, Kanako decides to take over the PA system to announce that the bullying better stop or she’ll reveal everyone’s darkest secrets. Tota thinks Kanako’s direct way of speaking is cool and he begins to look up to her. Haru’s snarky personality and tendency to call Kanako out on her behavior makes him a great foil. Haru is tall, dark, and conventionally handsome while Kanako is drawn as a very short girl who is always peering over her glasses with a knowing smirk on her face. Haru comments to Kanako that she’s strong, and “It’d be more interesting if all the girls were like you.”
One aspect of this manga I was initially unsure of was the portrayal of female friendships. It is fairly typical for there to be plenty of backstabbing and bitchiness in shoujo manga, and it gets repetitive after awhile. I’m also a little tired of reading stories aimed at girls where the normal behavior of other females is constantly portrayed so negatively. But The Secret Notes of Lady Kanako manages to avoid getting trapped in cliche. Kanako prides herself on seeing through all facades. She transfers from school to school to maintain her prized outsider status and when she hears a someone comment on a nice girl, she thinks to herself “Sweet girls like her? You’re awfully gullible.” Kanako’s observational habits end up uncovering secrets at her new school, but instead of becoming an enemy of the two-faced girl that was the object of her studies they end up becoming unexpected allies, bonding over the fact that they both have twisted personalities. Kanako says that she observes because she doesn’t need friendships, but she usually ends up helping the people she watches. She doesn’t tolerate hypocrisy, and she celebrates the quirky behavior that other students find off-putting.
There’s an element of knowing cynicism in Kanako’s personality that is really refreshing for someone who’s been reading a lot of shoujo manga that features sweet but ditsy heroines. In many ways Kanako is the exact opposite of the typical shoujo heroine, but she does display a few moments of softness when encountering the first friends she’s made in school. Haru occasionally pops up in a chapter here and there to tease Kanako, and she returns to her first school at the end of the volume for the cultural festival. She finds out that while she prides herself on observation, her old friends were actually watching her and use their knowledge to try to do something special for her.
This manga isn’t perfect, as there are repetitive introductions at the start of every chapter and the episodic nature of the manga actually made me wish for more Haru/Kanako interaction. I was surprised to read in the author notes that this was Tsujita’s first volume of manga, because she managed to create such a compelling heroine on the first try. This series is only three volumes long, and is worth picking up if you’re looking for shoujo that manages to combine cynicism with sweetness.