By Ririko Tsujita. Released in Japan as "Warau Kanoko-sama" by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine LaLa DX. Released in North America by Tokyopop.
I have to admit, this title took me totally off guard. I knew next to nothing about it going in, except that it was 3 volumes long and cute shoujo. Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out to be one of the best things I'd read in months, with a delightful heroine, some great humor, character development that doesn't hit you over the head with its obviousness, and best of all, a fantastic use of its somewhat prearranged format.
For those unaware, LaLa DX is the sister magazine of LaLa, which comes out 6 times a year, half the amount that regular LaLa does. (Likewise, Hana to Yume has its own similar sister publication, The Hana to Yume, which serves a similar purpose.) Generally it has one-shots or short series, usually by folks who are newer to manga than the regulars in the big publications. Sometimes a title will surprise everyone by really taking off, and will move to the big magazine (Natsume's Book of Friends and Special A are good examples of this.) And often a title commissioned as a one-shot will get a lot of fans, and it will lead to a series. That's what happened here, with the first chapter of Kanoko's adventures clearly being a one-shot. The magazine comes out 6 times a year, and can't be relied on to have readers as dedicated as those of the main publications, so usually the first 3-4 pages of every chapter are a recap, introducing everyone all over again and laying out the premise. It can get aggravating when put into a collection, but works very well for serials.
Lady Kanoko, however, takes advantage of this need to re-introduce everyone by having her change schools every single chapter! At first this seems very bizarre, and I'm not quite sure what her parents must do to allow her to do this (it's not even clear that it's deliberate), but it serves the plot quite well. Kanoko's machinations depend on the class she's in not being all that familiar with her. Once she reveals herself, it would become much harder to meddle - excuse me, observe - without either compromising herself or getting found out. Plus, this saves us the problem of 'every classmate has a crisis' repetition - each new school brings one big issue, which Kanoko 'solves' and then moves on.
This could still get very dull - witness Genkaku Picasso recently, where the revelations turned out to be quite ordinary - but we also have a smart and fun heroine in Kanoko, the title character. She's clever, she's observant (well, mostly - see below), she cuts through all the social niceties to speak her mind. As the lead guy in the series observes, she's STRONG, and is honestly baffled about why other girls aren't the same as her. She's also got some fantastic facial expressions, particularly her nasty grins when she's taking things down in her notebook. Though my favorite of her smiles is the one where the author simply draws a straight smiley-face line - :) - usually right at her moments of triumph. (The first chapter ends rather jarringly with her crying in the bathroom after realizing that she actually does have friends who care about her, but this is fairly easily written off as being the one-shot ending - the final chapter's blushing denials are far more in character.)
Best of all, like many impartial observers (which she isn't - the book shows us over and over again how much she meddles in everyone's lives, to the point where "objective observer" becomes the running gag of the series), Kanoko is completely unaware of her own foibles and problems, as well as how she appears to others. Tsubaki, the lead guy I mentioned before, shows up chapter after chapter at her new school, which it is hinted is sometimes several HOURS away by train - and every time she's surprised, and moreover accepts his explanations/excuses. It's certainly clear to *us* that he's totally smitten with her - and also finds her fascinating, in the same way that she's enjoying observing all the students around her. He watches the watcher. I've talked before about the clueless dense heroines who don't get that the guy is totally in love with them, but this one doesn't seem to be solely for the reason that if they realized their love the series would end. Kanoko simply isn't to the point yet where she can accept or even understand such feelings in her life.
Her meddling also doesn't always work, and is another good way of making her sympathetic. It's all very well and good telling off girls who you only met last week, but in the final chapter when Kanoko returns to her first school for a festival she was invited to, we see that she has indeed been affected by her friends - and that this is a good thing. Towards the end, she tries to manipulate her friend Momoka into getting out of a school competition that she knows will be sabotaged, but when she tries emotional manipulation on her it just leaves Momoka sad, and gives Kanoko a sour taste. Seeing Kanoko at the very end attending the competition and cheering Momoka up was quite heartwarming.
Honestly, this is one of those volumes that, having finished it, I immediately went back and read it all over again. I know it won't be for everyone - despite all my raving about it, it *can* get repetitious - but I personally found this to be a total home run pick-up for Tokyopop. Buy it, so it can sell well! It has a sequel currently running in LaLa DX, chronicling Kanoko's years in high school, and would be an ideal license after this finishes.
Also, Kanoko in the Marchen Doll costume is utterly freaking adorable.