In Garden of Words and 5cm Per Second, the element that I found the most important was the atmosphere, because I could never fully get into the character stories. However, compared to Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho, aka The Place Promised in Our Early Days, Garden of Words and 5cm Per Second are veritably fantastic character dramas to me. This is not so much due to the characters of The Place Promised being actively bad as it is due to the fact that the atmosphere and the setting are just overwhelmingly more interesting than the characters.
The Place Promised takes place in a world with an altered history, in which the island of Hokkaido has been annexed by a fictional geopolitical entity called the Union and the rest of Japan is under US sovereignty. This aspect of the movie was interesting to me in itself, but on top of that there are also the sci-fi elements regarding the huge tower built by the Union on Hokkaido. In contrast, the characters can be boiled down to “boy likes planes”, “girl is sick” and “they make a promise to investigate the tower together”. To me, what the characters thought and ended up doing was not nearly as interesting as the military tension between US-occupied Japan and the Union which served as the backdrop to the story about the characters.
In a way, that military tension and geopolitics-heavy setting means that this is probably the most ambitious of Makoto Shinkai’s movies when it comes to story(I should probably read the manga to see if it expands on the interesting stuff at all). The end result was somewhat disappointing, mostly because I found the characters boring and the climax of the movie unsatisfying, but to give credit where its due, the movie is really stunning in terms of visuals. Being Shinkai’s first feature film, The Place Promised is not as technically fantastic as 5cm Per Second or Garden of Words, but it wins out when it comes to the impact of its environments. Garden of Words didn’t have many different environments(which was kind of the point of it) and while 5cm had a lot of variety when it came to the settings of the different parts(particularly the second part), they didn’t feel as meaningful as the locations in The Place Promised. In my opinion, that’s the greatest strength of this movie.