In the world of spy thrillers, full of CIA agents, gunfights, and global power balance-changing secrets that cannot fall into the wrong hands, there typically aren’t a lot of Japanese cars mentioned. However, when the author is former International Editor of Road & Track Sam Mitani, the focus shifts from Aston Martins and BMWs to Lexuses and Nissans. In his debut novel, The Prototype, Mitani draws on his 22 years of experience at one of America’s top auto magazines to weave an action-packed tale in which the worlds of automotive journalism, government agents, and the Japanese auto industry collide like cars in a chase sequence.
During his stint at Road & Track, Mitani traveled to over 45 countries and drove the best cars on the planet before anyone else. Being bilingual in English and Japanese — Mitani was born in Tokyo and moved to the US at age two — helped him bring a different perspective to the traditional buff books. In a seminal March 1995 issue (that’s Mitani driving the Callaway Camaro on the cover) he introduced Japanese tuner cars to the US mainstream. (Full disclosure: Sam is a friend and I advised him on part of the book early on — the science-y bits, not the cars; Sam has way more experience than me on that front).
This background was crucial to creating the rich world of The Prototype, the story of a young auto journalist who suddenly finds himself pursued by baddies who want him dead. The story begins when protagonist Stockton Clay, a writer for the fictional Automobile Digest magazine, receives the invitation of a lifetime, a chance to test drive the new prototype supercar built by Kamita Motors, the Japanese automaker that stands in as an amalgam of Toyota, Nissan, and Honda. Just the depiction of the press trip alone is something few authors could write without intimate knowledge of the automotive industry, and anyone who reads it will want to change careers.
The unlikely hero is suddenly swept into a world full of spies, mad scientists, and beautiful women. The adventure takes Stockton from Malibu to southern France, but the bulk of the action takes place in Japan. We can’t say much more without revealing spoilers, but what we can say is that Mitani’s deep familiarity with Japan and its cars imbues the tale with a sense of realism and detail absent from most stories of this genre.
For example, Kamita Motors builds everything, from the aforementioned FGT-1 supercar, to a perfectly named kei sports car called the Kamita Maestro that fits right in alongside the Suzuki Cappuccino and Honda Beat. There’s a minor character who is a foreign model that once starred in Kamita commercials, not unlike Mary from 1970s Nissan Skyline ads. And, one of the best scenes is a car chase that takes place on a touge road outside of Tokyo.
Real cars are chosen for main characters with care, like Stockton’s personal NISMO 370Z or the Dodge Charger driven by a government agent. Even background cars are described with specificity, and Mitani peppers in references to a Lexus GS, Toyota Crown Majesta, Mitsubishi Delica, and more to paint a realistic portrait of Japan. Even the touge scene contains brief appearances by cars like the Subaru BRZ, Nissan Silvia, Mazda RX-7, and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
It’s not just the cars, either. Mitani makes sure to describe the aircraft, guns, and fashion in great detail, and locations such as Circuit Paul Ricard and Fuji Speedway, as well as various districts of Tokyo, all come into play. You know when a book, movie or television show purports to be about Japan but gets the details wrong, taking you out of the story? This is not going to happen with The Prototype.
“It was the setting I knew most about.” Mitani told JNC. “I went to Japan four to seven times a year, every year, when I was with Road and Track.” It definitely shows.
When asked about his inspiration for The Prototype, Mitani said, “Writing a novel was always a dream of mine. I read a lot in college, especially the classics.” Mitani interned at Road & Track during college and afterwards landed what many would consider a dream job.
“At Road and Track I was dedicated to the job, so I didn’t even think about writing a novel,” he explained. “After I left, I realized there weren’t a lot books for guys like us, about the import culture. I wanted to write a book for us.”