I'm guessing that the director, Itami, had a great love for all the movie genres, including Westerns, gangster movies, comedies, you name it, because they are all loving reflected in this movie.
As others have noted, the plot is definitely patterned after Italian Spaghetti Westerns--a handsome but weathered character (Goro) comes into town and spots a widowed mother in distress (Tampopo). With the help of his eccentric friends (including a band of culinary hobos that sing in exquisite harmony a farewell song whenever their leader leaves them for a time), Goro helps Tampopo turn her fortunes around by becoming a noodle soup master! I could definitely see John Wayne playing the part of Goro every time he adjusted the brim of his cowboy hat or the bandana around his neck.
In addition to the main story line of the winsome noodle shop owner, several unconnected episodes are included. What ties them all together seems to be the theme of enjoying and appreciating and living for food, from the story of the noodle master imparting his wisdom on the perfect noodle soup to the disciple, to the old woman who sneakily wanders through an upscale grocery store just to TOUCH food, to the charismatic gangster whose dying words to his lover are about the wonders of an esoteric food delicacy, the intestines of freshly killed boars who have dined on yams that make a natural yam sausage.
Sounds odd, I know, but the director has a warm, affectionate viewpoint that lets us enjoy the eccentricities of the characters while still feeling good about them. There is not the faintest trace of meanness or cynicism in this movie. Laugh out loud scenes make this one of the funniest movies I've seen in years, and the honesty and poignancy of the wonderful characters will make this movie live in my memory for many years.