“Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is Alchemy’s first law of Equivalent Exchange. In those days, we really believed that to be the world’s one and only truth.” – Alphonse Elric
FMAB is a masterpiece steeped in themes from science, religion, war, to philosophy, along with a memorable cast and riveting plot all in 64 episodes. It’s no surprise it’s the highest rated on MyAnimeList. I personally rank it below HxH due to my own subjectivity, but in no way does that waver my certainty of this show’s GOAT status.
The story takes place in Amestris, resembling of Nazi Germany, both from its origin (forced takeover of states) and operation (military controlled government, unethical human experiments, etc.). Unlike the Holocaust’s goal to “purify” the Jews, the Amestris’s secret order aims to create an army of homunculi – or immortal soldiers made from Philosopher stones. It is this philosopher stone (a reference to the mythical substance representing elemental perfection) which the protagonists seek to retrieve back their bodies (which were lost when they attempted to use alchemy to revive their mother). Thus, this quest for the philosopher’s stone drives the plot. The philosopher’s stone and state alchemy represents the belief in scientism, or that science alone can override other competing theories in religion (e.g. there a town whose citizens believed excessively in traditional God, and the minister who spoke on its behalf was just using a Philosopher’s stone).
This all resembles something out of The Alchemist, where the Philosopher’s stone was a metaphor for one’s personal journey. However, in FMAB the sinister secret behind the stone completely changes the perception of our protagonists and the viewers. It is here where the brothers must decide whether they will succumb to the same by using the stone, or find a different solution themselves. They partner with a government coup d’etat, comprised of former soldiers whom saw first-hand during the country’s founding what the Philosopher’s stone can do.
Apart from this synopsis, the story has many motifs from western philosophy. For example, the attempt to revive a human via “human transmutation”, and when that happens the transmuter is sent to “The Gate”, the source of alchemy’s truth. The transmuter confronts a black-and-white figure who can resemble any shape, named “Truth”. I don’t know much, but it is said to have taken inspiration from Plato’s Theory of Forms. That said, there’re also the added eastern philosophy brought on by memorable characters like Ling Yao and May, who uses a different kind of alchemy based on nature’s forces. That proves there’re many ways to realize science, and the kind used in Amestris that’s being harnessed from philosopher’s stone is clearly not the only way.
If you want to see some of the objectively best themes anime has to offer, go watch this masterpiece!